Philadelphia Wants a High Line

reading train high lineA growing contingent of Philadelphia locals are trying to raise a cry for transforming a retired, elevated viaduct into a gardened, pedestrian thoroughfare. Being almost universally regarded as a success, New York City’s High Line is the obvious case study for how the re-purposing of old, industrial relics can transform them into unique, local icons ingrained with authenticity. With clear sustainable advantages pointing to reuse rather than demolition, the urban proposal has important differences from one of New York’s most treasured parks that could make the road to realization long and arduous.

The Reading Viaduct originally served a slightly different role than Manhattan’s High Line. The latter was constructed in the early 20th century to elevate train traffic over street level and allow industrial transport to pierce deeper into the city without the dangers that it posed to cars and pedestrians at grade. Conversely, the Reading Viaduct was built to bring rail transit into Reading Terminal in the heart of Philadelphia. Eventually, train traffic was moved out of the center city in the second half of the 20th century and the Reading Terminal was absorbed into the city’s conference center. With trains no longer slipping into center city, the viaduct became another defunct piece of urban infrastructure.

Urban Train Infrastructure

On the left, Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct. On the right, New York City’s Highline before renovation.

One only needs to look at a current picture of the viaduct next to a “before” picture of the High Line to see the similarities in opportunity to make a great public space. Having been on the High Line numerous times I can attest to the fact that moving through the city and its buildings above street level is a fantastically unique experience. Furthermore, the hopes for anticipated development around the High Line that helped convince city regulators to support the project continue to become a reality with each passing day.

Not Exactly Apples to Apples

Despite the similarities between the two projects, there are some important differences. Though widely considered a success, the High Line was not created at a trivial cost. The City of New York pegs the cost of the first two sections at $240 million with over half of that coming from either the city or the federal government. The project is not technically done yet either with the last half-mile loop between 30th and 34th street still under negotiations to secure the future of the elevated steel railway amongst its various stakeholders. As the economy has turned downward, the future of the project has needed to be supported more by private funding sources and less by municipal aid. Quite simply, were it the High Line was set to start in 2009, its future may not have been as bright. For a project that is already on its way to being the catalyst of billions of dollars of private development one could say it was a worthwhile investment for New Yorkers, but its price still fosters barriers to entry that other cities may not be able to overcome.

Architect’s Newspaper reported that Philadelphia’s president of the Center City District was apt to point out that “Philadelphia is not New York.” The High Line has raised tens of millions of dollars of private donation for its realization with the latest being a $20 million donation from the Diller-von-Furstenberg foundation back in October. The generous grant represents the largest of its kind for a park in the history of New York. Philadelphia does not have the population of celebrity icons to facilitate the same kinds of funding levels.

I am also skeptical of the viaduct’s location in relation to the downtown. Most of the mile-long track is actually outside of Center City, arguably the strong nucleus of Philadelphia. Though the viaduct bridges over it, the sunken artery of Interstate 676 and its paralleling Vine Street act a spatial border to the center city that could depress the amount of people that would utilize a new raised park leading away from the consolidated activity of the four gardened squares. In New York’s example, neighborhoods like the Meat Packing District and Chelsea were already well into their respective resurgence when the High Line was realized. On the other hand, if the park could induce more patronage then there would be that much more room to improve for the northern side of the downtown.

Utilizing our old infrastructure in new ways is a bountiful opportunity in many of our older American cities. Most of these urban-scaled interventions required years to construct, tons of material and a great deal of energy. Their reuse extends their life cycle and allows cities to maintain the authentic components of their fabric that fall prey to the growing wave of gentrification. Whether it is the High Line, Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal or Chicago’s own abandoned elevated train line,¬† we have numerous ways to ground a meaningful renaissance of public activity in our urban centers.

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