Philadelphia is home to some of the largest green spaces in an urban setting, but few trails connect the city’s Northwest neighborhoods to Center City.
Bryan Shipenberg, the president of Friends of the Ivy Ridge Trail, is hoping to change that by linking existing trails in Roxborough, Manayunk, and East Falls to the Schuylkill River Trail in Center City, as well as to trail networks in southern Montgomery County.
“The real object is just to connect everything and make it continuous, so people can go one way or come back another without having to deal with traffic and cars,” he said. “In that process it will help build their community.”
Shipenberg, a former member of the Friends of the Cynwyd Trail in Lower Merion, is in the early stages of making his vision of a fully interconnected trail system a reality. He is currently putting together a friends group and organizing initial fundraising to start repairing sections of the Ivy Ridge Trail. But he does not see himself leading the project forever.
“This project is such a large undertaking — I can’t do it alone,” he said. “Once I do my part, hopefully I can pass the baton.”
The Ivy Ridge Trail mostly consists of abandoned railroad corridors that run along the east bank of the Schulykill River. The 2.3 mile trail runs from the end of Main Street in Manayunk into parts of Roxborough.
Shippenberg’s goal is for hikers and cyclists to be able to one day travel unimpeded from the southern parts of Montgomery County into parts of Northwest Philadelphia, and continue on into Center City.
Currently, the Ivy Ridge trail starts directly next to the Manayunk Bridge, with parking lots at either end. Pedestrians using the Ivy Ridge trail can currently travel into East Falls using parts of the Manayunk Canal Towpath, and then traversing Kelly Drive near the Wissahickon Transit Center. Heavy car traffic and existing roads are boundaries between these trails, so building smoother transitions between the pedestrian rights of way is part of Shipenberg’s vision.
Chris Leswing, the director of building and planning for Lower Merion Township, is a close friend of Shipenberg. Leswing was part of the team that helped refurbish the Manayunk Bridge, which reopened to pedestrian and bike traffic in 2015, connecting Manayunk to the Cynwyd Heritage Trail trailhead in Bala Cynwyd. In recent months, he’s helped Shipenberg with some of the logistics of the Ivy Ridge project.
Given his conservative estimates, Leswing said the Ivy Ridge Trail project could cost up to $10 million, and take anywhere between five and 10 years to complete. But its future, he explained, is contingent on who’s in charge.
“It all depends on leadership,” he said. “You can have all of these incredible ideas, but unless you have the right team of people making sure things get done and are focused on one unified vision, it won’t materialize.”
Shipenberg is in the very early stages of the project, still putting together a nonprofit organization, working out a governing structure for the friends group, and even designing a logo.
Yet the question of whether the Friends of Ivy Ridge can get the community on board is still up in the air. One of the parking lots the trail would go through is currently being used for residential parking, and the residents who use that parking are not eager to see it go.
“Every time something goes into development, there are always different types of people,” Shipenberg said. “I don’t know if the people here are going to be so friendly to change. I know the reputation of Roxborough now. I know it’s a city in its own kind of transition. So the communication between the entities that want to create the trail and the residents is going to have to be handled rather delicately.”
Leswing said that regardless of what the residents who live directly behind the trail want, if several community organizations, local government entities, and outside sponsors are on board, it will get built.
“The people in these houses using this parking lot are renters, and as much as they complain about the prospect of losing a spot for their car, it’s out of their control,” he said. “All they care about is parking, and once the trail is actually built, it will end up benefiting them.”
These benefits are pretty straightforward, Leswing said: easy access to green space, increased property values, and, hopefully, tighter-knit community.
Many local community organizations and development corporations are also on board with plans to construct new trails and recreation spaces. Upgraded pedestrian infrastructure often means increased foot traffic, which can lead to more tourism and income for small businesses, said Michelle Feldman, the director of the East Falls Development Corporation.
“Any efforts to connect the entire trail network and add to the connectivity of the entire trail network is really important and helpful,” she said. “Because ultimately, it supports our environmental ecosystem, but also obviously supports our small business ecosystem in terms of helping to bring folks from various portions of the Northwest or right across the border in the burbs, too.”
Shipenberg has a long way to go, but is excited to see what the project becomes and how he can help contribute to the community.
“It puts the biggest smile on my face to see a community coming together on the trail,” Shipenberg said. “I feel responsible for that, in a way. I mean, I didn’t put them together physically, but I helped put in that effort, whether it’s minor or major.”
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