Changing Skyline: Still not enough funding, but Reading Viaduct is a park in all but name

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Michael Garden at the Reading Viaduct, now renamed Rail Park.

The golden summer morning was perfect for a stroll on the Reading Viaduct, Philadelphia's answer to New York's High Line. The difference is that Philadelphia's version has no architect-designed staircases or glass elevators to bring visitors up to the postindustrial wonderland. To get inside, you have to venture up an overgrown ramp, bushwhack your way through chest-high weeds, then shimmy through a large opening in a chain-link security fence. Technically, it's trespassing.

"I've been here several times," Brian Ewing, a 37-year-old Philadelphia schoolteacher, told me the other day as he showed a friend the drill. "It's really easy."

The Reading Viaduct is not a city park, or even public property, but you would never know it from the steady stream of visitors who come to explore the overgrown railroad embankment that begins just north of Callowhill Street, and travels from Broad to Ninth.

While still owned by the Reading Co., the viaduct has become such a popular leisure destination that a friends group organizes tours for newbies. Someone installed a tire swing on a rusted signal pole. Not long ago, a bride and groom were spotted posing for wedding photos, with the Center City skyline rising majestically in the background. A vacant lot next to the viaduct was even chosen this year as the site of one of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's summer beer gardens.

A park in all but name, the only thing that keeps the elevated right-of-way from being turned into a clean, landscaped public space is money.

That is not for want of effort. The park proposal goes back to 2004, when two Callowhill residents, John Struble and Sarah McEneaney, first laid out their vision for turning the dirt-and-stone Reading Railroad embankment into a public green space similar to the High Line, which was then beginning construction. The proposal picked up steam in 2011 after the Nutter administration included the viaduct park in the citywide master plan, and the Center City District agreed to oversee its construction.

Since then, the viaduct's champions have raised $5 million toward the first phase, which would cost roughly $9.6 million. But a key state grant, worth as much as $3.5 million, remains tangled in Harrisburg politics.

Michael Garden, who serves on the board of the friends group for the project, recently renamed the Rail Park, says he has heard rumblings that this might be the year when the grant comes through. Or maybe not.

"I keep hearing that we'll know in four or five weeks," Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell told me. "Of course, I've been hearing that for months."

Still, the project feels tantalizingly close to becoming a reality. The city recently took ownership of a small piece of the rail structure, a 1,000-foot spur between Broad and 13th Streets, from SEPTA. The landscape design for that segment was completed years ago by Studio Bryan Hanes. "From time to time, we pull out the drawings and tinker a bit," said Hanes, "but the construction documents are essentially ready."

If the state money did come through this year, Lovell says the rail park could be ready to welcome visitors in nine months - not through a hole in a construction fence, but through a graciously landscaped portal on Broad Street.

The delays are especially frustrating because high-line rail parks in other cities have already gone from pie-in-the-sky dreams to reality. Last year, Chicago opened a three-mile stretch of its 606 trail, which links a string of neighborhoods and has become a convenient commuting path for bicyclists. Atlanta's two-mile-long Beltline has been drawing joggers and cyclists since 2013.

The High Line, the nation's most famous elevated rail park, attracts a lot more than crowds. It has become a magnet for new development, which has transformed its once seedy surroundings into one of Manhattan's most desirable neighborhoods. Many believe that even the completion of the short spur would go a long way to knitting the Callowhill neighborhood, Chinatown North, and Center City back together.

In many respects, the process is already underway. Goldtex, a high-end apartment building at 12th and Wood, planted the flag when it completed its colorful, syncopated facade two summers ago. A developer has just wrapped up a row of townhouses on Noble Street, overlooking the spur. There are now 3,000 registered voters in Callowhill, once a depopulated swath of factory lofts.

For many years, many thought the biggest stumbling block to completing the project would be the city's inability to gain control of the main viaduct from the Reading Co. That entity is actually part of an entertainment company that operates a chain of movie theaters. It bought the railroad's name - and its real estate - in the mid-'80s, shortly after Philadelphia completed an underground rail tunnel into Center City for Regional Rail. The Reading Railroad declared bankruptcy in the '70s, and its last train rumbled over the viaduct in 1984.

As interest in creating a rail park grew, the Reading Co. clammed up. It was assumed they were trying to drive up the sale price.

Because the viaduct's ownership has always been a bit unclear, I recently requested the property records from Deputy Revenue Commissioner Marisa Waxman. What seemed like a simple question turned into a major research project that involved Waxman's office and several other city departments. After weeks of digging, officials determined that there were at least 25 parcels adjacent to the viaduct held by a variety of owners. Together, they owe $1.26 million in back taxes.

More surprising is what the city discovered about the viaduct, which had been exempt from property taxes while it was a functioning railroad. After the trains stopped running, the city neglected to list the viaduct on its tax rolls. "They owe taxes back to 1984," Michael Piper, the head of the Office of Property Assessment, told me.

How much? Piper said it would take a lot more work to assess the value of the viaduct and determine Reading's bill.

Wouldn't it be nice if the tab was enough to pay for completing the rail park?

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 Clarification: The portion of the Reading spur between Broad and 13th Street has long been owned by the city. The section recently acquired from SEPTA for the Rail Parkis runs southwest between 13th Street and Noble, to the south side of Callowhill.