Rail Park Redux

The first phase of Philadelphia’s version of The Highline opened on June 14. Located between Broad and Noble Streets on the one hand, and 11th and Callowhill Streets on the other, The Philadelphia Rail Park has added a slice of green to a formerly industrialized, warehouse district just north of Chinatown. The Park has been in the planning stages for well over a decade and is a joint effort of the City, the Center City District, SEPTA, and the not for profit “Friends of the Rail Park.” Ultimately envisioned to include two more segments to the east and west, the Park is an excellent example of brownfield redevelopment and repurposing of antiquated infrastructure in dense urban sections at the core of older cities. These neighborhoods have little green space, but are nevertheless experiencing rapid gentrification and repopulation.

A series of grants, fundraising, and other techniques were used to finance this first phase which cost approximately $10M. There is clear evidence that “greening” strategies such as the Rail Park play a key role in catalyzing both economic and real estate value, while at the same time providing an important public amenity. Some limited re-zoning has already occurred in this “Callowhill” district of the city and more is likely on the way. In the meantime, the Park is a form of a “TOD” – Transportation Oriented Development – which has proven so powerful in transforming neighborhoods. Once completed, the Rail Park will run close to 3 miles and link a dozen different neighborhoods for both pedestrian and bike use, allowing the public to traverse these different sections of the City without having to cross a single city street. The initial structure of the transaction was a lease to the Center City District who assumed the risk of the construction. Ultimately, the segment will be conveyed to the City itself, and the Park will be maintained primarily by the City, with certain enhanced maintenance by the Friends of the Rail Park. One unanswered question will be the source of future capital funding, as well as a revenue stream to support on-going maintenance and operations.

While the Rail Park is not as glitzy as The Highline in New York, nor will it ever spur the type of development on steroids that has happened in the Big Apple, it is already having a positive impact. The next two phases of development are likely to be more challenging. The eastern segment is still owned by the remains of the Reading Company – the reorganized shell that once ran the Reading Railroad. Primarily located in California, it is unclear what the Reading will seek to extract in such a transaction. The western segment, owned by SEPTA (previously by Conrail, and the Reading before that), is a former freight line that runs in a cut below street level between Spring Garden Street and the Parkway and could be quite costly to develop.

Whether through creative re-zoning or the leverage of private-public partnerships, the continuing development of this unique piece of railroad history will be fascinating to follow.

The author’s company, Conrail, continues to own a dilapidated Reading Dining Car at the mouth of the new park and plans are in the works to repurpose and recondition the car for food, visitors, and offices for the Friends of the Rail Park and ultimately for donation to the City. An announcement on this piece of the project should be occurring in the near future.

Jonathan Broder is the Vice President of Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer of Conrail – he worked on the Highline transaction in New York for many years and was able to share lessons learned, background data, and information with CCD, the City of Philadelphia, and the Friends of the Rail Park as they planned their project and provided advice on how to structure the transaction and address land use and other legal issues related to the development of the Park.

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