5 things to know about Philly’s future Rail Park

Don’t expect another High Line.

Atop phase one of the Rail Park construction site between Broad and Noble streets and 11th and Callowhill.

Atop phase one of the Rail Park construction site between Broad and Noble streets and 11th and Callowhill.

Contributed by Robert Hakalski
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Bryan Hanes, designer of the first phase of the Rail Park, likes to think the highly anticipated park will give visitors a glimpse of Philadelphia they’ve never seen before. The same way developments near the rivers have brought residents to places where only industry once stood, the Rail Park will do the same above the ground.

And soon we’ll get to have that experience. The first phase of park is supposed to be ready in January, a little earlier than expected. It’s expected to transform and revitalize the long-abandoned Reading Viaduct. This early portion of the Rail Park will wind about a quarter of a mile from Noble and Broad streets to Callowhill Street between 11th and 12th.

On Wednesday, Hanes gave a sneak peek into some of the details of the project during a Q&A session with Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron.

Here are five things you should know about Philly’s future elevated park:

It’ll be smaller and more crowded than you think

Think about Rittenhouse Square on a sunny weekend afternoon. Crowded, right? Well, phase one of the Rail Park won’t even be that big. It will be the same size as the middle of Rittenhouse.

“If I took [phase one] and folded it into a square,” Hanes said, “the portion is almost the same size as the center part of Rittenhouse Square….That’s all this is. The center of a neighborhood park.”

Even when all three phases of the Rail Park are complete, Hanes said its size will basically equal the entirety of Rittenhouse Square. By then, he hopes people will be able to spread out and distance themselves not just from the ground level of the city, but the crowds, as well.

“Part of that escape is not about just being up off the street,” he said. “It’s about having some solitude and some opportunity to kind of be alone. That, I think, is going to be one of the hardest things to preserve.”

Rail Park
Friends of the Rail Park screenshot

It will be less glitzy than the High Line

The Rail Park has long been called Philly’s version of the High Line. Like the famous park in Manhattan, it’s being built atop a former rail line and will provide visitors with an elevated walk through an urban setting. But Hanes talked about one key difference between the two parks — and really, between the two cities.

“The Highline is very much designed with every single component of it as something fancy, shiny and overly done on it. Unfortunately because it’s so crowded you never really get to experience something like that,” he said. “Our approach is to be a little bit of the opposite.”

Essentially, the High Line is a little more about glitz. That’s not what Hanes’ team was looking for with the Rail Park. They kept coming up with the word “authenticity” when discussing how they wanted the final product to turn out. That means he still wants the Rail Park to contain the industrial feel of its original use and the neighborhood. To do so, the development team has been using massive hunks of wood and steel that look more beat down than they are.

“Those hunks of wood aren’t pretty,” Hanes said. “They’re going to splinter and crack and twist and all kinds of good things. And that’s part of the intent of it. It should be referencing at least the kind of wild character that’s out there that so many of us fell in love with before the construction started.”

Find your peaceful place. ✌🏼#therailpark

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Gentrification concerns are being taken seriously

Speaking of pre-Rail Park days, the neighborhoods around it are already changing. Developments like Roy-Pitz Barrel House and other parts of the Spring Arts plan have popped up nearby on Spring Garden, and there are more to come.

Hanes said there’s “always a risk” in causing problems for communities where developments like the Rail Park are built. He identified three areas — Chinatown, Callowhill and West Poplar — as locations that could be impacted, and said his team has been in contact with representatives from those neighborhoods. He said they’ve looked at opportunities for affordable housing adjacent to the park in several different lots.

“We’re not trying to have the same crowds as the High Line does,” Hanes said. “We’re not trying to have busloads of German tourists. Inevitably that will happen, but more than anything we want this to be a place that reflects the values and the culture of the people that are adjacent to it.”

People are still (illegally) scoping out the Rail Park

Sure, the Rail Park is under construction and the completion date for phase one is nearing, but that hasn’t stopped people from sneaking on. Hanes sees people who’ve snuck through the fence for a walk all the time

“There’s never a time I’ve been up there,” he said, “and not run into somebody else.”

The next phases are still far away

Phase one of the Rail Park costs $10.3 million and has come from a mix of state, local and private funding. The most expensive part of the redevelopment process have been cleaning up the lead paint, Hanes said. Two other parts of the park — the Cut and the Tunnel — have barely been looked at by designers. Hanes said they’ve been through only preliminary processes with the Cut and further continuation of the elevated viaduct.

If Philadelphia is to have a completed Rail Park, tens of millions more dollars will likely be needed.

“Hopefully this piece will be such a great success,” Hanes said, “people will want to see it continue on.”