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 ReadingViaduct.org 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.