On Halloween, 2016, ground was finally broken on the new Reading Viaduct Park in the Callowhill Section of Philadelphia. Ten years in coming and forever lurking in the shadow of New York City’s Highline, the first phase of the project should be complete in a little over a year. The project is a partnership between the City of Philadelphia, the Center City District and a community group called the Friends of the Rail Park.
The Reading Viaduct is an elevated railroad that was originally part passenger, and part freight. Originally terminating in the Reading Railroad Train Shed at 12th and Market Streets (today part of the Philadelphia Convention Center), passenger service ceased in 1984 with the construction of a tunnel connecting Suburban Station to the new Market East (Jefferson Station today).
A second piece veered west at 11th and Callowhill and became the City Branch freight line that ramped down and under Broad Street, and then underground into a cut reaching out to Fairmount Park near the Art Museum. This segment was buried in the 1890’s when the City was constructing the Parkway and the art district. At one time, this industrial corridor between Callowhill and Spring Garden streets was one of the busiest in the world, hosting grain elevators, factories, the world famous Baldwin Locomotive works and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Unlike the Highline, there is good fee title to all of the Reading line and there are not a number of property owners looking to demolish the line. Similarly, unlike New York, the Reading Viaduct traverses an area that is largely a warehouse district with minimal development to date. However, the City is hoping with rezoning and investment, that the elevated park will spur development in that part of the city. Significant development activities are already occurring around Broad Street and moving north to Temple.
The first segment of the project is being financed by a series of public – private partnerships, including money from the Commonwealth, the City, several foundations and some individuals totaling just under $10M. In addition, to allow future financing, different options are being examined to create a neighborhood improvement district to assess a tax dedicated to the future maintenance and operation of the park. As currently structured, the transaction involves a lease between the Center City District and SEPTA. SEPTA acquired the City Branch from Conrail in the mid-90s when the Philadelphia Inquirer’s printing operations moved to the suburbs. The Center City District will manage the construction and once complete, the line segment will be conveyed to the City of Philadelphia. The City Parks and Recreation Department will manage the park. The Friends of the Rail Park has agreed to do some “plus” maintenance above and beyond normal day to day maintenance to sustain some of the unique finishes the park will have.
Like the Highline, the Reading Viaduct Park is a wonderful example of clever public-private partnerships, unique repurposing of one of a kind infrastructure, as well as good use of brownfield options to bring back to life old, industrial property for new and beneficial uses. The second phase will be to work on the former passenger corridor, the 9th Street Branch, that runs more than a mile from 11th and Callowhill, moving east and north to Fairmount Avenue. The reorganized Reading Company still owns this segment. The third and final phase would encompass the more complicated and expensive subterranean piece west of Broad Street.
Jonathon Broder is Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of Conrail and worked on the Highline matter from 1989 to the present.