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On the Ground: For businesses adjacent to the upcoming Rail Park, change is on the way

Rendering of the 13th Street overpass in daylight

Renderings of the Rail Park

Sarah McEneaney

A rendering of Rail Park

Reading Viaduct

An elevated rail park is finally becoming a reality on the old Reading Viaduct in Callowhill, and after decades of debate, local business owners are preparing for their new neighbor. 

The proposed park -- galvanized by dollars from the Fairmount Park Conservancy-led Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative -- is more than just a new place to picnic or walk your dog. For this evolving neighborhood, the project raises questions about development, increased foot traffic, a growing residential population, economic activity and tax revenue. Not to mention the practical and financial realities of maintaining a large new public asset. 

One local business owner is New Hampshire native Robert Cheetham. He founded Azavea, a civic and socially geared geo-spatial mapping and technology firm, out of his apartment before moving the offices to the Wolf Building at 340 N. 12th Street. Also a member of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association's Board of Directors, he finds a certain charm in the remnants of Callowhill's past. 

"I don't get too bent out of shape about the lack of green space, per se," he says of the area's landscape of old industrial buildings and modern power infrastructure. "What's awesome about this neighborhood is there's this weird abandoned stuff. That's part of its character. I kind of wouldn't want to see it gentrified entirely."

That said, Cheetham calls the Viaduct plans "an enormous opportunity for the city, broadly speaking, to be able to transform some of its unused, disused industrial infrastructure."

Tam Hirt, the owner of Reds and Son which specializes in foreign auto repair and maintenance, has been in business on 12th Street between Callowhill and Carlton since 1987. He's noticed a major shift in the neighborhood in those years.

"When we [came] in, the whole neighborhood was a ghost town," he recalls. "After six o'clock you couldn't go on the street." The area was full of factories whose employees left at the end of the day. "Now it's all changing…it's all lofts and apartments." 

Hirt doesn't think the new park will impact his business directly, but "it is just going to make the neighborhood nicer." The area is now full of "people on the sidewalk and streets," and it'll be good "just to have a park to walk around here; we don't have anything [like that]…I'm sure it's going to draw more people to live [here]."

Meanwhile Fishtown resident Mike Welsh -- a managing partner at the new Brick and Mortar near 12th and Pearl Streets -- is so optimistic about the rail park that he's building business projections around the amenity's development. 

With help from partners Rick Nucci, Joe Yeager and Brian Poehlmann, the restaurant hit its six-month mark in December. The owners actually teamed with the Friends of the Rail Park to turn the eatery's June launch party into a ticketed fundraiser.

"Whatever monetary profit we took in, we could immediately kick that revenue right back to the rail park," says Welsh. "We saw this as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor, so to speak." 

Welsh mentions other exciting local projects such as PCDC's Eastern Tower (slated for 10th and Vine Streets) and the redevelopment of the nearby Divine Lorraine. The Brick and Mortar partners hope biding their time for a couple years is going to pay off. 

"We see that the growth is probably going to reach its peak somewhere in the next two or three years, and that's when we anticipate doing our best number," predicts Welsh. "I think it's a game-changer. What it does is sort of invigorates the whole neighborhood and entices people to come in here and open businesses and be a resident."

Even within the last six months, he's already noticed an increase in local foot traffic. Mixed-use, green-space and transportation projects are changing the face of Philadelphia, turning the neighborhoods adjacent to Center City into 24/7 hubs of activity. 

As Welsh puts it, back in the '80s and '90s, "everyone would work and get out of there as fast as possible. What the Viaduct really does is give people an added reason to say, 'Hey, I actually want to live in the city.'"

Cheetham points to the growing tax base that comes from that shift. 

"I want to see that well-spent," he says of dollars from City and state taxpayers as well as philanthropic money from foundations like William Penn and Knight. The Viaduct isn't just about "buy[ing] the City an amenity...It will become a catalyst for economic development. The range of development already happening around here will likely cause the density to be high enough that multiple investments will be synergistic off each other. I think [the Viaduct] is a good investment from the taxpayer perspective."

And of course the rail park will also improve the quality of life for people who work in the area. 

"I suspect that my employees would really use it," says Cheetham. They might eat lunch up there or walk outside more often than they do now. He thinks a team picnic on the Viaduct, for example, is something his colleagues would jump at.

Welsh agrees, saying that the park is part of Philly gaining "R&R appeal that a lot of cities don't really offer. You bring your company down there and there's an opportunity for them to stretch their legs, or go do something during the day, and I just think that's really appealing."

So is the prospect of the rail park all roses? Of course not -- there are always pitfalls with a project this large and complicated.

Cheetham, Welsh, and Hirt all point to the success of New York City's High Line as a model for the Viaduct, though major differences in size, ownership and infrastructure exist.

Ownership of the park is something Cheetham thinks stakeholders will be wrestling with soon. The area slated for Phase 1 construction -- a former two-track quarter-mile stretch ramping up from ground level at Noble Street near Broad -- is currently owned by SEPTA, though Center City District will take responsibility for the area during construction, and then turn the site over to the City for ongoing maintenance (with the help of Friends of the Rail Park).

But that's only about a quarter of the Viaduct's total size -- about five acres curve between Vine and Fairmount. Most of the site is still owned by the California-based Reading International, Inc., a real estate, cinema, theater and restaurant conglomerate descended from the Reading Railroad.

If the new park is a success, that "may make it harder to get [Reading International] to give up the rest of it," says Cheetham. "The City doesn't have access to that property."

Though as Plan Philly reported in 2009, deals have been proposed in the past. 

"If you have this other thing right next to it that has unleashed a pilot investment, that's going to make them less likely to want to let it go without a hefty price," he adds. 

And despite rampant positive comparisons to New York's High Line, Cheetham is not wholly convinced that the model is worth emulating. 

"The success has been a plague as well," he explains. "The success came faster than anyone expected, and there was no maintenance money put into the original investment."

The Viaduct's eventual maintenance is an ongoing question. One potential solution is the establishment of a new Neighborhood Improvement District that would funnel a sliver of increasing tax dollars into upkeep.

"No one wants to donate to a successful project," says Cheetham. "They want to donate to build something. No one wants to donate to maintenance."

And though it is a beautiful success, the High Line wasn't designed for the number of people who actually use it now, which leads to issues like crowding and trash. 

"I'm generally an optimist, but I'm also fairly skeptical," explains Cheetham. In general, a new influx of people into the neighborhood "would be an outstanding outcome," though the more people who arrive -- from residents to park users to business owners and employees -- the bigger those questions about the future become.

"What can we do about that now?" he wonders. "I don't know. That'll be a good problem to have."

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On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.
ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.
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