Branching Out: New rails-to-trails plan includes an underground park

The Friends of the Rail Park (FoRP) are working to transform the decommissioned Reading Railroad line into a post-industrial linear park, like New York City’s High Line, but partially below street level. The three-mile park is split into two pieces: FOTRP focuses on the western, below-grade section, part of which is referred to as the City Branch. The other piece is the Reading Viaduct, which is above ground and looks to the east. “There is energy and excitement behind the whole vision for this park,” says Michael Garden, an agent with CITYSPACE realtors and a supporter of FOTRP’s efforts. Garden says all parties involved are working hard to prove that the concept works. 

Phase One of the Rail Park is a spur running two-tenths of a mile east from 13th and Noble Streets. Spearheaded by the Reading Viaduct Project with support from the Callowhill Neighborhood Association and funding from Center City District, it is expected to break ground in 2014 and will serve as a proof-of-concept of the park’s potential. 

Existing ConditionsLooking to the future, a Community Design Collaborative volunteer design team from OLIN, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, CVM Engineers and VJ Associates worked with FoRP to demonstrate how the City Branch — which runs west from Phase One and underground below Broad Street to 17th Street — can connect the city in dynamic new ways. The design addressed safety and accessibility concerns associated with the underground section of the park with simple measures: plenty of entryways via stairs, elevators, a larger ramp proposed at Broad Street adjacent to the school district administration building and closing the park at night, like the High Line. “The space will be activated at all times of year,” says Board President Liz Maillie, who is enthusiastic about the sheltered space available in the City Branch section of the park. Spaces covered by road crossings and a tunnel under the Pennsylvania Avenue will be transformed into event spaces. The Design Collaborative’s plans illustrate the feasibility and practicality of reenergizing this forgotten section of the city.

Those looking to get involved with FOTRP can sign up for their newsletter, check out the new blog on their website, therailpark.org, and pencil in their September 14 event at Philly Fringe Festival, a fundraiser that will help establish a park maintenance fund for Phase 1. FOTRP will also partner with Design Philadelphia in October, offering a park tour and showing off the Design Collaborative’s plans. 

See what will soon become a prototype of the rail park between Broad Street at Noble Street and the portion of the viaduct above Callowhill Street. Learn more at therailpark.org.

Story by Alon Abramson