Aug 16, 2023 - Development

New push to develop defunct railway viaduct into Philly's High Line

Illustration of a railroad crossing sign standing in a flower bed.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

A new plan is afoot in Philadelphia's long-running effort to wrest control of an unused railroad trestle and transform it into an elevated park.

Why it matters: Supporters say converting the Reading Viaduct into the city's version of New York City's High Line could bring new investment and green space to the North Philly neighborhoods it cuts through.

Yes, but: The viaduct's longtime owner has resisted calls to sell the dilapidated property for decades.

What's happening: City officials and Center City District are partnering on a new attempt at acquiring — by any means necessary — the 1890s railway viaduct from California-based Reading International.

  • The plan hinges on City Council legislation, proposed in June, that would allow the city to pursue the blighted viaduct, whether by sale, donation or condemnation.
  • Under the proposal, the city would lease the viaduct to the CCD, which would improve and maintain the space.

The intrigue: CCD president Paul Levy tells Axios he's renewed talks with Reading International about the unused railway.

A rendering of an elevated park developed on the Reading Viaduct in Philadelphia.
A rendering of the Reading Viaduct showing about half the old line developed. Courtesy of Center City District/Studio Bryan Hanes

Context: The viaduct remains an eyesore in the one-mile area extending from Vine and 11th streets to Fairmount Avenue at 9th Street.

  • Hotspots for illegal dumping have emerged, despite big developments taking shape nearby.

Flashback: Activists have been working to revive the viaduct since at least 2003.

  • Levy helped turn a small rail spur that connects to the viaduct, which was not owned by Reading, into the Rail Park in 2018.

Of note: Transforming the viaduct is part of the city's 2035 plan.

By the numbers: A major portion of Philly's viaduct is 60 feet wide — about double the width of NYC's High Line — offering more space for development but also high costs.

  • Converting the property into a park would likely cost more than $35 million, per the Inquirer.
  • CCD says it would fundraise to cover the costs.

What they're saying: Some residents and civic groups in the neighborhoods by the viaduct are raising concerns about the plan, including whether they'll be left out of the process, per the Inquirer.

  • Levy cautions the development is up in the air but tells Axios enthusiasm for an elevated park is strong.

Councilman Mark Squilla, who put forward the redevelopment bill and represents the area where the viaduct is located, tells Axios his proposal won't move forward without community support.

  • "Our position is that [the viaduct] is worthless — it's going to cost [Reading] more to demo it or to maintain it than to get rid of it," he said.

Of note: Reading International didn't return Axios' requests for comment.

What to watch: The city and CCD are scheduled to hold ongoing community meetings and develop conceptual designs for the viaduct project over the coming months.

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