Philadelphia’s Rail Park is an effort by three dedicated Philadelphians to transform an unused rail line into a grand pubic space that connects Fairmount Park to the cultural spine of Philadelphia along the Parkway down to City Hall. The space begins at the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue near 28th Street near Lemon Hill. That’s where a rail line runs underneath a tunnel that heads toward City Hall. Could that tunnel be of one Philadelphia’s next great civic spaces?

Map of the Rail Park

The Friends of Rail Park is the newly rebranded incarnation of the group formerly known as Viaduct Green. The group recently partnered with the OLIN studio to develop a vision for half a mile of the three mile former rail line that begins at Broad Street and runs three blocks west. The group calls it the park’s City Branch. The proposed park runs along an old rail line along Pennsylvania Avenue until part of it emerges below street level behind the Rodin Museum near 22nd and the Parkway. Around 18th and Callowhill, the part of the space that can be seen now is overgrown brush. The tunnel eventually connects with the proposed Reading Viaduct.

Overgrown and scary today

FORP members Aaron Goldblatt and Leah Murphy presented the recently completed plans for its West City Branch in April. Plans for this specific element envision removing the parking lot now situated in front of the School District building just north of Broad and Spring Garden, and creating a large ramp down to the rail. It would also require the removal of a building FORP does not own. Goldblatt knows this is long-term far-reaching thinking, but it’s his vision nevertheless.

Right now, the FORP are poised to begin working on fundraising for a long-term feasibility plan for the entire site, according to Goldblatt. One issue that affects the reality of this vision is ownership. According to Goldblatt, SEPTA owns the right-of-way for the submerged part, about 10 percent, of the tunnel. But the air rights for that section are unclear.

“There is lots of work to be done,” said Goldblatt. That includes handling legal, structural and political issues as well. But how might a former tunnel work as a civic space? “We would be programming the hell out of it,” said Goldblatt. Early thoughts include performance or rental banquet space.

A look inside a tunnel today

The FORP see this unused former rail line as an opportunity to for the development of a “beautiful urban space.” They have rebranded because the rail line is not a viaduct. Only part of it is submerged. And it’s about a tremendous amount of space with the potential for redevelopment. What do you think folks?

–Lou Mancinelli