When will a park finally come to the Reading Viaduct?

reading viaduct above broad
A rendering of the proposed Reading Viaduct park stretching above Broad Street. (Credit: Philadelphia Community Design Collaborative).

In the latest push to reclaim Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct as a trail and elevated park, nonprofit Friends of the Rail Park released conceptual designs for the transformation of a half-mile stretch of the City Branch spanning from 13th to 18th Street.

The renderings comprise just one part of a proposed three mile linear path that would span both the Viaduct’s City Branch and elevated 9th Street Branch.

“That neighborhood where the City Branch goes through has a ton of cultural and arts destinations and the City Branch has this incredible potential to thread them together,” Friends of the Rail Park president Leah Murphy said.

“There’s also the Community College of Philadelphia, which is actually Philadelphia’s largest higher education institution. So you have like 30,000 staff members and students kind of buzzing around that campus every day and they don’t have a lot of green space.”

So what’s the holdup?

The Viaduct has two owners – SEPTA lays claim to a spur of the City Branch, while the rest of the corridor is owned by former railroad operator Reading International, which has since become an entertainment company that focuses on movie theaters.

Murphy says she’s seen signs SEPTA may be willing to work with advocates.

“SEPTA has done a number of rails to trails projects where they’ve owned former rail right of ways and allowed them to be reused as linear parks and recreational paths, so it’s not something they’re unaccustomed to doing,” she said, adding representatives have in the past encouraged the organization to pursue its efforts and escorted stakeholders on tours of the Viaduct.

“We’re still in communication with SEPTA, but I think they currently plan to do their own feasibility study to finally determine whether transit use is feasible or desirable for the City Branch.”

Murphy believes the corridor is wide enough to support both a bus rapid transit network and a park, side-by-side.

Still, Reading International doesn’t appear to be as receptive to redevelopment proposals.

“Before the High Line in New York happened, no one really saw these structures as something valuable,” Murphy said, adding now that other cities are looking to the elevated rail park as a model, it’s changed the perceived value of abandoned rail assets owned by companies like Reading International.

“I think they kind of set into the view of the 9th Street branch as a great opportunity to capitalize on – they’re not going give it away for a reasonable price.”

Murphy said she doesn’t expect meaningful movement as far as funding commitments until all the Viaduct’s patchwork ownership issues are resolved.

“There are a lot of opportunities, especially if you think of both branches together as one continuous path,” she said.

“Because then, instead of just being sort of an isolated neighborhood park just on the 9th Street Branch, you’re pursuing funding for both of them together,” she said, citing the potential to link the Viaduct on into a regional trail network on its west side.

“I think when you think of the bigger picture and larger opportunities, you have the ability to plug in bigger sources for partnerships and grants and things like that.”

Development landmarks

>> 1995. SEPTA acquired a quarter-mile-long spur of the City Branch for possible light rail use.

>> 2003. The Reading Viaduct Project was founded to advocate for the adaptive reuse, mainly of the elevated 9th Street Branch.

>> 2010. The Friends of the Rail Park was created to promote a park stretching across both the 9th Street and City branches.

>> 2010. The Center City District commissioned a grant funded feasibility study of the entire Viaduct, which found renovation would be less expensive than demolition.

>> 2012. The Center City District completed a design study for a public park on the City Branch’s SEPTA Spur.

>> 2013. The City Planning Commission released its Philadelphia 2035 Central District Plan with the inclusion of a linear park as one potential future for the Viaduct.

>> 2014. Construction is set to start on the Center City District’s SEPTA Spur park.


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