Amtrak zeroes in on a 30th St. Station Plaza as district plan progresses

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Artist’s rendering of the proposed 30th Street Station Plaza, as seen from above the corner of 29th and Market Streets looking northwest.

Amtrak wants to replace the traffic-choked snarl that surrounds Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station with tree-canopied public spaces in an early step toward realizing the transit corporation’s $6.5 billion redevelopment vision for a huge adjacent swath of University City.

The passenger-rail operator plans to present a proposal for what it is calling 30th Street Station Plaza at an open house at the station late Wednesday afternoon.

The plaza would be completed in an early phase of the larger redevelopment project, known as the 30th Street Station District Plan, that is seen as eventually including the partial capping of Amtrak’s adjacent rail yard to accommodate what would be a new urban enclave along the Schuylkill’s west bank.

“We have the vision in place for the District Plan,” said Natalie Shieh, a senior manager for planning and development at Amtrak’s major stations. “Now we are zooming in on Station Plaza.”

As currently situated, 30th Street Station is isolated from its neighborhood by the teeming vehicle-access roads that ring the 1930s station building.

The plaza plan aims to reconfigure that space with driveways that channel taxis to a new queueing area on the station property’s northwest corner and separate passenger-car pickup and drop-off lanes on the block’s north and east sides that can be reached directly from surrounding streets.

Much of the space reclaimed from what are now winding driveways will be integrated into the station’s eastern, western, and southern aprons, which would be landscaped with trees and planters and paved with patterned surfaces.

Also included in the plaza plan is a new outdoor access way leading to underground shops, parking, and a concourse that will eventually link 30th Street Station with SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line.

Envisioned in the much broader 30th Street Station District Plan is redevelopment of a 175-acre site between Walnut and Spring Garden Streets, east of the Drexel University campus and Powelton Village, over 35 years.

The overall plan was devised through a two-year, $5.25 million study published last summer and is now being led by a group made up of Amtrak, SEPTA, PennDot, Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University City District business association.

Radnor-based Brandywine Realty Trust had been part of the group while the study was being prepared, but it has since left to avoid any conflicts while pursuing development opportunities at the site, Shieh said.

Brandywine chief executive Jerry Sweeney said in an interview in late June that his company was among those responding to a request for proposals last year to develop a three-quarter-acre site owned by Amtrak at the corner of 30th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard that is to be part of the 30th Street Station District Plan.

The District Plan’s vision for a dense urban neighborhood, largely over what are now 88 acres of rail yards, is expected to involve about $2 billion in public infrastructure spending and about $4.5 billion in private investment by developers of office towers, residential buildings, hotels, and other projects.

Amtrak plans to open its search for developers to handle the overall project and its constituent parts, including Station Plaza, by issuing a request for qualifications later this month, Shieh said.

Work on the plaza project is seen as beginning within five years, she said. Construction is expected to cost about $73.5 million, according to the District Plan study.

At Wednesday’s open-house presentation, set for 4:30 to 7 p.m., Amtrak will seek public input on how the space will be used, to further refine designs.

Retail kiosks, temporary market stalls, and programming such as yoga classes are among the uses imagined for the space, Shieh said.

“Our focus was to make sure that Station Plaza not only functions from a transportation sense, but would become the next great civic space for Philadelphia,” she said.

Revitalizing the station’s immediate surroundings is key to forging a strong physical link between western Center City and University City, an important step toward making the combined district an economic driver for the region, said Jennifer Vey, an urban-planning fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The station site is “an impediment in its current state,” said Vey, co-author of a recently released study calling on Philadelphia leaders to foster an “innovation district” from 17th Street to 43rd Street along the Market Street corridor. “On the other hand, it’s obviously a major opportunity, as well.”

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