Two Steps Back on Reading Viaduct Esplanade

still vacant

While New York has broken ground on its High Line park, Philadelphia’s efforts to redevelop the Reading Viaduct have suffered a general loss of momentum.  Just two years ago, at charettes of “incredible intensity”, Penn and Drexel design students, landscape architects, and community groups thought big about the prospect of a center city promenade plantee: a community park for Chinatown and Callowhill.  Now, the lofty talk has ebbed and major organizations like are as silent and abandoned as the structure itself.  Though the winning student design from the charette was praised for its “creativity and low cost”; it was not sufficiently simple to be implemented.

Though I pause before uttering such a typically Jadedelphian sentiment: it’s becoming more and more probable that I won’t see the Viaduct restored within my lifetime. 

In truth, it is no wonder that the Reading Viaduct project has devolved into memories of furious charettes and defunct websites.  It is increasingly evident that no grassroots support for a landscaped esplanade truly exists in either the Callowhill loft district or Chinatown sections.  It is unclear whether the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation has altered its position, first articulated in July of 2004, that the structure should be demolished to allow the construction of market-rate housing.  It is unclear, really, where any of the original proponents for a recreational/residential Viaduct now stand.  Although young planners touted the structure’s ability to unify several neighborhoods, no voices calling for a restored Viaduct have emerged from Northern Liberties, Spring Garden, West Poplar, or Brandywine East sections.  In the past two years: silence above and silence below for the Reading Viaduct.

Even if strong community support existed to induce city involvement, the estimated cost for landscaping the Viaduct (a scant $5.1 million) may not include the substantial costs to remove ballast, ties, and other appurtenances contaminated with PCBs.  According to a Reading Company legal opinion this cost will bef oisted onto either the city or SEPTA, neither of which are inclined to support a superfund-type cleanup:

“The Company believes that the Viaduct may be contaminated by PCBs resulting from former railroad operations on that property conducted by or on behalf of the Reading Railroad, Conrail, the City of Philadelphia or SEPTA. The Company has advised the EPA of the potential contamination. The Company has not determined the scope or extent of any such PCB contamination. However, the Company has been advised by counsel that, given the lack of regulatory attention to the Viaduct in the eleven years which have elapsed since EPA was notified of the likelihood of contamination, it is unlikely that the Company will be required to decontaminate the Viaduct or incur costs related thereto. In the event that the Company was required to incur expenditures to remove PCB contamination on the Viaduct, under terms of the settlement described above, Conrail, the City of Philadelphia and SEPTA would be required to fund 52% to 55% of such costs.”

The prospect of high human use of the formerly-contaminated right-of-way introduces legal peril into the reconstruction process — a fact which has received little attention in notices of design charettes.   The fallout that would ensue if a Viaduct user were to show signs of PCB exposure means that dominant political players will judiciously weigh the litigation risks against the the potential political gains.  In Philadelphia, this process of discernment usually amounts to an elaborate game of hot potato or buck passing at a glacial speed.

It may be that I will never walk a Philadelphia promenade plantee.  While I pine, I’d like to see a coordinting organization emerge with a little more permanence and hear a few more voices from the neighborhoods below the Viaduct.

15 thoughts on “Two Steps Back on Reading Viaduct Esplanade

  1. I first heard of this project earlier this year and thought it was a fantastic idea! Seems like a damn shame that there is no interest or that no one wants to know about the decontamination costs. Yea, The High Line is the glamour boy of these types of projects with celebrity endoresements and all that. I do not know much about Philadelphia so I cannot comment on whether the apathy is typical or not, but someone needs to make a little noise down there!


  2. Greetings, Chris.

    Was trying to find information on how the Reading Viaduct plan was coming along and came across your article.


    Sadly, Neath, the inertia that this project faces is typical Philadelphia. We’ve gone from a city that was once, in some respects, cutting edge to a city where dreams now end up on the cutting room floor.

    I thought this had the potential to be a Center City/Northern Liberties jewel. Perhaps there’s still some hope. But if I had to place a wager, I would bet that in 10 years, the viaduct remains the way it is, neither demolished nor rehabilitated.

    That is, unless a private developer comes along ready to build a high-rise condo somewhere in its footprint.

    We’re very good at building condos these days.


  3. im a longtime resident of philly and i remember in the mid eighties what the viaduct looked like at worst when it was conected to the reading shed. i thought as a child as part of an urban transit super link they should have converted the viaduct into a high speed/interurban line which could be ridden by people in the emerging neighborhoods in the area as well a direct connect from the heart of downtown to the suburbs. we need faster links to the city and that location would be prime for a new transit jewel .we would be the envy of most big cities .with direct connects like this one proposed more fan/family business would be instrested in moving around where people congragate.oh yeah did i forget the convention center.

    1. Bryant,

      part of the problem is that during the late 70s and early 80s, the northeastern railroads were reshaping. By the mid Eighties, the Reading Company itself had been merged into conrail, and what was left of all Philadelphia commuter rail fell under SEPTA. both of these railroads “rationalized” their track plans by getting rid of duplicate track, and it seems like Pennsy’s 30th street was the preferred choice in terminals for philadelphia.

      A light rail up there might be nice, but when you think about it, the tracks already pass close enough to Reading terminal and its viaduct that you can’t really justify running anything there. at that point, people would probably start taking buses or just walking.

  4. so… I am an first year graduate student of architecture at UPenn – and our project for the semester is located in the heart of Callowhill…. great to know they come up with new ideas… looking at the Viaduct and all it’s glories… what a fantastic ruin… have a few images on my website – one 360 from on top of the viaduct and one panorama from the abandoned warehouse right next to the viaduct. Would love to see this remain a ruin.. and the neighborhood transform around it. Too many transformations ruin the remains and our witness to decay is a great reminder of our own fallibility. check out the blog / website – just beginning it…

    1. The only reason I’d semi agree is that i love preserving historical stuff, and electric railroading is my favorite ( I just received “Electric Trains to Reading Terminal” in the mail today).

      Alot of the catenary and related infrastructure is still up, and i’d love to thoroughly docuement how it all comes together, right down to the individual rivet and wire. (this information is neglected in most sources). if it got turned into a park, i bet most of this infrastructure would be removed.

      does anyone know how safe it is to explore up there?

  5. “Why change paradise and put up and
    parking lot” – when you can conserve
    and preserve our beautiful precious history. Restore the Reading Viaduct!

    Join the Reading Viaduct Project now!
    Sign the Petition! we need your support.

  6. I’m a 5th year Landscape Architecture major at Philadelphia University. This is my thesis/ capstone project! It’s a great site and absolutly beautiful. I think that Philadelphia’s viaduct has more potential then New York’s highline, so hopefully that’ll translate when it does get turned into a park. I say when because I’m set on it happening. I hear there will be a competition next year… hopefully

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