After sustaining myself for months on New York Times slideshows and various design blogs, I finally got to live out my architecture-geek fantasy and walk the High Line in person. When friends heard of my plan, they feared I had joined a circus troupe or some kind of Johnny Cash tribute band. And while both sound strangely tempting, my weekend in New York City was far more benign. In fact, it was merely a walk in the park - the High Line Park, to be more specific.
Originally an elevated railway built in the 1930s to supply meat packers and manufacturers on Manhattan's West Side, the abandoned highline has been repurposed as a magnificent park suspended at treetop level above the streets of New York. James Corner, the chairman of Penn's Department of Landscape Architecture, who won the commission for the park in 2004, worked with the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to integrate everything from the old tracks, which now host rolling chaise lounges, to the wildflowers growing among the rusted railroad ties.
The High Line's rampant success (the media darling sees 20,000 visitors daily, among them Kevin Bacon, Ethan Hawke and Edward Norton) proves that modern cities can embrace their industrial heritage and promote sustainability, all while pleasing tourists, crabby locals and the haughtiest of architecture critics. And while we can all be proud of Penn's Corner for his contributions to the project, it's hard not to feel just a little left out. New York, it seems, is like the sibling who always gets the new bike on Christmas, while Philly gets shafted with a pair of socks (hand-me-downs, no less).
With its vibrant industrial past, Philadelphia is primed for such a project. In fact, a group of citizens have been lobbying for a park in northern Chinatown for over a decade. In 2003, a diverse group of locals formed the Reading Viaduct Project to drum up support for preserving the viaduct, transforming it into a High Line-esque park. In 2004, graduate-level design studios at Penn and Drexel focused on reimagining the derelict structure. And now, the High Line's recent success has caused renewed interest in the plan, bringing Penn Praxis, the School of Design's clinical arm, into the fold.
Unfortunately, as with many Philadelphia projects (South Street Bridge, anyone?), no one can reach a consensus, and the process is stymied by the details. Residents view the viaduct simultaneously as both an obstacle to redevelopment in Chinatown North, as it takes up space that could be used for low-income housing, and as a potential elevated 'rails to trails' linear park space.
But what many proponents fail to see is that we don't need to make a carbon copy of the New York's High Line - in fact, we shouldn't. Designers need to tailor the project to the needs of the community. Currently, the aqueduct branches off to the west for about 0.35 miles to Broad Street, and to the northeast for about 0.6 miles, terminating at Fairmount Avenue and SEPTA's active regional rail tracks. There is plenty of room for both affordable housing and a dynamic public park. Turning just the western branch into a park would connect two congruous neighborhoods, enriching the entire surrounding area while leaving the northeasterly branch for housing development.
And - always a consideration in this economy - a project that promotes sustainability, adds green space and creates jobs would be an excellent candidate for stimulus funding. Compared to the price of dismantling the aqueduct, which comes in at around $35 million, creating recreational space would be a fairly economical remedy for the eyesore. Developers estimate that a bare-bones park would cost around $5 million.
Unlike the High Line, which had the luxury of celebrity boosters and a location in an already thriving district, the Reading Viaduct Project's risk is amplified by the fact that Chinatown is floundering. The stakes are greater here, but so are the rewards. Developers would be building more than a park in a swank neighborhood; they would be bringing a community back to life.
Ashley Takacs is a College senior from Buffalo, NY. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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