Source: Chinatown Neighborhood Plan
The first section of New York City’s long anticipated High Line – the abandoned 1930s rail viaduct transformed into an elevated park – is now open. And the response has been impressive. According to The New York Times, after having been open for a month now, the park draws up to 20,000 visitors daily. When all sections are completed the High Line will be a mile-and-a-half-long park, floating over several West Side Manhattan neighborhoods.
Although still under construction, the High Line has already captured the imagination of New Yorkers. According to the Times, the High Line has organically developed its own “economy” and “arts scene.” A friend of mine recounted running into a crowd on one section of the High Line, just in time for a makeshift “cabaret,” performed by neighbors from the porch of a nearby apartment building. This kind of unusual park, cityscape vista, and opportunity for quirky urban culture is compelling, surely making some folks in other American cities with abandoned railroad viaducts green with envy.
Case in point: In Philadelphia, architecture critic Inga Saffron recently wrote about the High Line, including praise for the work of the University of Pennsylvania’s James Corner, who was part of the High Line design team. Saffron lauded the High Line, calling it “a delightful new way to experience the city,” and asserted that it “should be a model for Philadelphia’s unloved Reading Viaduct.”
Saffron is referring to Philadelphia’s own abandoned elevated rail bed, constructed about 100 years ago, and used until the mid-1980s. Today the abandoned Reading Viaduct cuts through the “Chinatown North” neighborhood, branching off to the west for about .35 miles to Broad Street, and to the northeast for about .6 miles, terminating at Fairmount Avenue and SEPTA’s active regional rail tracks.
Some Philadelphians have been interested in reusing the Reading Viaduct as a park, for more than a decade. In 2003 a diverse group of locals formed the Reading Viaduct Project to drum up support for preserving the viaduct, transforming it into a High Line-esque park. In 2004, design studios at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University focused on re-imagining the viaduct in this way.
However, all Philadelphians are not in consensus about the viaduct’s future. This disagreement surfaced from 2002-2004 during the process of creating the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan. This planning process was coordinated by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), and developed by the design firm Kise, Straw & Kolodner (KSK), involving seventeen different stakeholder groups, including Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), Asian Americans United (AAU), and Callowhill Neighborhood Association.
In the “Chinatown Neighborhood Plan,” published in December 2004 the Reading Viaduct is just one element, but it is clearly an important piece of the Chinatown puzzle. For those not familiar with Philadelphia Chinatown’s political and historical context, here’s some quick background: Since the 1960s the Chinatown neighborhood residents and businesses have been in the streets fighting major development projects that have encroached on their community. These include the Vine Street Expressway, Gallery I & II, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center. All of these projects were built.
As such, the 2004 neighborhood plan describes a community that has slowly been hemmed in to the south, encouraged to look north for future expansion. Additionally, Chinatown has seen rapidly rising residential prices, creating a stated need for affordable housing in the community so that it can continue to serve as an ethnic and cultural gateway.
This background explains some of the controversy over the Reading Viaduct issue. Some in the Chinatown community see the land under the viaduct as dark, dirty and unsafe. At the same time, some see it as prime real estate for the public sector to gain control, demolish the viaduct, and redevelop the land as much needed affordable housing. Some also see the viaduct’s diagonal northern spur as a hindrance to positive growth, creating a swath of small, triangular parcels that cut through the neighborhood.
Yet, others in Chinatown and Callowhill see the potential for an elevated park as a very positive element. The Chinatown plan clearly shows this diversity of opinions and apparent lack of consensus. It includes statements like: “This massive structure is viewed simultaneously as both an obstacle to redevelopment in Chinatown North and as a potential elevated ‘rails to trails’ linear park space.”
Through a multi-year process, the plan’s creators worked hard to build consensus and compromise. The published plan offers such a compromise solution: “Initial thinking on the future disposition of the viaduct has traditionally focused on an ‘either/or’ scenario: complete removal or complete preservation. An alternative scenario is the possibility of selective demolition and the retention of certain segments of the viaduct.”
The images in the plan illustrate how this solution could work. The quarter-mile, masonry-supported spur west to Broad Street would be retained and transformed into a park. The northern spur would be retained for about .2 miles, up to Ridge Avenue, where it would ramp down to the surface and connect with a planned new “town square” park, surrounded by mixed-use development. In this compromise solution, the remaining .4 miles of the northern spur of the viaduct would be demolished. This compromise would allow Chinatown to develop its own “dramatic downtown overlook or ‘sky park’” while also clearing some land for redevelopment.
The viaduct compromise is just one element of the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan. Others include capping a portion of the Vine Street Expressway for a new community park, the aforementioned town square, mixed-use development, affordable housing, and streetscaping. In addition to the viaduct park, the plan also calls for substantial surface park construction.
Also in 2004, the Philadelphia Commerce Department commissioned an environmental study to establish cost estimates for the potential demolition or reuse of the viaduct. When it came out, just after the neighborhood plan, the study showed that demolishing the whole viaduct would cost about $36 million. Demolishing the sections identified in the neighborhood plan would cost about $11 to $13 million. Meanwhile remediation and capping would cost about $5 million. The plan does not assess the costs of building a true park on the viaduct (New York spent $152 million on just the first two sections of the High Line). So the short of it is that demolition would be expensive, remediation and building a park would be much more expensive.
Cost and feasibility aside, after the 2004 planning process, it seemed that the various factions had found some common ground. Keep part of the viaduct for a park, and take down other sections for community development. However, a meeting in Chinatown last night, revisiting the 2004 plan, showed that such consensus has not yet truly occurred. The meeting at Holy Redeemer Church drew a crowd of over 100, featuring John Gibbons of KSK, John Chin of PCDC, and Laura Spina from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
The audience members, aided by Mandarin and Cantonese translators, asked questions about a variety of topics. However, the viaduct seemed to steal the show. After John Gibbons described the neighborhood plan, including the viaduct compromise, Sarah McEneaney of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association stood up and explained that the Reading Viaduct Project is still committed to saving the “entire” viaduct and that there were petitions at the front of the room.
She was followed by Andy Toy, past chairman of PCDC, who explained that the vision in the neighborhood plan is “a compromise that allows the viaduct to stay in place.” The rest of the audience remained fairly quiet on the issue, and one resident had never heard of the viaduct – showing that it had not yet gained the mass public awareness of New York’s High Line. There was no resolution to this issue, and so far as the viaduct is concerned, clearly more dialogue needs to happen.
For those focused on turning the viaduct into a park, it is critical to realize that this vision does not currently have the political support to move ahead. The community stakeholders who are still at odds need each other to achieve their desired ends. As such, a success for the viaduct and for Chinatown North will rely on compromise, with stakeholders bridging their differences, acting in concert around a shared vision. As Andy Toy said at the meeting, “We can’t move forward in any way if we continue to disagree.”
At its core, this issue is not just about the viaduct, but about the historic dynamic between Chinatown and the rest of the city and region. The Chinatown residents and business owners must be empowered to determine their neighborhood’s destiny. At the same time, it is important for the community stakeholders to recognize the potential significance of the viaduct as a powerful regional asset.
The Chinatown Neighborhood Plan lays out a strong vision for a physical compromise. Whether the stakeholders can agree to rally around it will determine their ability to convey a shared vision – necessary for generating political support and funding. Whether the stakeholders can find common ground will ultimately determine the fate of this neighborhood’s urban landscape, and Philadelphia’s shot at getting its own floating park.