Left: Current conditions at the Reading Viaduct. Right: A rendering of what it will become.

Left: Current conditions at the Reading Viaduct. Right: A rendering of what it will become.

Bobby Chen/Billy Penn and courtesy of Studio Bryan Hanes

The secret company that owns the key to the Reading Viaduct Rail Park’s future

As it goes with many big projects, construction of the Reading Viaduct Rail Park is behind schedule. Best case scenario, developers break ground before winter. But there’s another, larger portion of the Reading Viaduct spur that’s still not owned by the city or SEPTA.

Instead, the property between Fairmount Avenue and Vine Street is owned by Reading International, a California-based real estate and movie theater development firm that’s held the space since 1943, according to city property records, and has accumulated thousands of dollars in tax liens.

For now, the Friends of the Rail Park, an advocacy group, is focused on securing the funding for the first phase of construction meant to transform the Callowhill and Chinatown area and the Reading Viaduct from an abandoned railroad track to a bustling urban space and an elevated park starting near Vine Street and curving up through the neighborhood to Broad Street. But the group still has one eye looking north.

Who owns the Viaduct?

It could be years until the first phase of the Rail Park is complete. But as Friends of the Rail Park secretary Michael Garden said, it doesn’t hurt to dream about what it could one day become. Problem is: The portion of the Reading Viaduct where the park could expand to isn’t owned by the city or by SEPTA, an agency that’s been cooperative with the project.

It’s owned by Reading International, a publicly-traded company that was once a railroad giant but now operates movie theaters and owns real estate. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment from Billy Penn, but city records show the property was purchased in 1943 and there are now more than $16,000 in tax liens on the property.

So why hasn’t Reading International sold to the city or another stakeholder with interest in it? Hard to say. But they tried at one point.

Years ago during the last year of the Rendell Administration, Reading International actually offered to pay the city more than $2 million to take the Viaduct property off their hands, according to Andy Toy, who worked in the city’s Commerce department for 15 years and was the manager of special projects and the brownfields coordinator at the time.

The area was dark and dangerous and the infrastructure was contaminated so the liability on the space was high. The city had a contentious relationship with Reading International after Toy says the company “hoodwinked” officials into paying for the cleanup of the area around the Viaduct though a lawsuit.

So though Toy and his colleagues were negotiating with Reading International to purchase the Reading Viaduct, the city’s law department was skeptical. Rendell’s Administration came to an end, Toy left and the Street Administration didn’t pick up the progress made on purchasing the land.

“When we left office, we didn’t pursue the agreement and I kick myself for that,” Toy said. “Because I think we should have. That was a lost opportunity.”

When Street and his administration proposed building a new Phillies stadium smack in the middle of the area that would have required the purchase of some of the land Reading International was sitting on. That, Toy said, likely made them realize they owned something valuable and were paying relatively low taxes on the land.

Certainly the value raised after the High Line was successful, talks intensified about building a park and development took hold around the rest of the neighborhood. Between 2013 and 2014, the assessed market value of the property nearly quadrupled, according to property records. Toy said he hopes the city considers taxing the property based on what Reading claims it’s worth.

At least for now.

“That’s been the big question mark is when the city will get control of the viaduct,” Toy said. “If we don’t own it or control it, they’re just going to sit on it.”

Why it’s behind schedule

The Reading Viaduct rail line is the hallmark of the post-industrial Callowhill area, or “Eraserhood,” thanks to the David Lynch movie. It’s an unused railroad that snakes through the neighborhood — the part being developed in phase 1 of the project ends on Broad Street at Noble, just across the road from the School District headquarters.

Ideas of turning the Viaduct from an eyesore in the neighborhood into an elevated park with great views of Center City began more than a decade ago. An advocacy group formed, local politicians got involved and the Center City District took the reins on the project. After years of discussion and property acquisition, renderings were produced by Studio Bryan Hanes, a local landscape architect and urban designer.

Fans of the project had hoped construction would begin in 2015. That didn’t happen, but not for lack of trying. Securing public funding for the project has taken longer than expected.

The Center City District has raised more than $5 million of the $9.6 million necessary to complete the project, Garden said. But they’ve been hoping to receive a key piece of funding — $3.5 million worth — from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, a state grant program that helps fund projects like this.

Instead of getting that money in 2015 though, the state legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf were entangled in an unprecedented state budget impasse that tied up funds for months and stalled the project all year. The impasse is now resolved, but that money still hasn’t been released.

Other fundraising projects are in the works, and the Bacon Brothers held a benefit concert for the Rail Park earlier this year. A pop-up beer garden is coming to the area this summer. And Friends of the Rail Park is focused on raising money to maintain the park after construction to a higher degree than what the city Department of Parks and Recreation can reasonably provide.

Once the money to fund phase 1 of the project is fully secured, it will be put out to bid, a process that could take several months. From there, construction may begin. At best? Garden says ground will be broken before winter.

“When you start talking about getting phase 1 off the ground, it’s frustrating,” he said. “But all kinds of other things… are going on, just engaging communities. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and ideas for it.”

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