Updated 3:10 p.m.
This week brings the long-awaited opening of the Rail Park, a rails-to-trails project in Philadelphia’s Callowhill neighborhood that’s been in the works since 2003.
With the June 14 launch of Phase 1, a quarter-mile stretch of the former Reading Viaduct that starts at Broad and Noble Street and curves southeast to Vine and 11th Street, the park will give the formerly industrial neighborhood a much-needed public green space. At the same time, by its very nature, the park will further increase property values in an area that has already been gentrifying for the past 20 years.
Despite that, the Rail Park enjoys widespread support — both from the urban planners and developers you might expect, but also from people who live right next to it.
“I’m glad they’re doing something in this city,” offered Leonard Mason, a 56-year-old Baltimore native staying at Our Brother’s Place, a nearby homeless shelter. “You can buy [property] now, it’ll be worth that much more.
“They’ll put in lights,” Mason said. “We will be safer: me, and you, and everybody else.”
Per U.S. Census data, the population in Callowhill has increased faster than the number of housing units, creating the increased demand that often leads to rising rents and property taxes. An urban planning concept called the Proximity Principle acknowledges people will shell out more money to be closer to parks; this means home values in the area will very likely see yet another bump upwards after launch.
Gentrification is often painted as affluent residents moving into neighborhoods with longtime residents and and forcing them out.
However — in part because of the looming presence of the elevated rail line, which had sat unused since 1992 — the Rail Park’s immediate area didn’t have many residents to push out in the first place.
“I’ve always loved the viaduct,” said Sarah McEneaney, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1979, “but there’s a reason why there’s empty lots next to it.”
McEneaney is now on the board of directors for the Friends of the Rail Park, the group that made the project happen by cobbling together $9.6 million from individual donors, the city and the William Penn Foundation, among others.
With the park’s opening, “there’s going to be an uptick probably in property values around it,” said Dr. Jeffrey Doshna, a professor of city, transportation and regional planning at Temple, “but property values in that neighborhood were very low to begin with. So some increase in value some reinvestment in the neighborhood is good.”
Developers like Post Brothers, which owns the Goldtex Building at 12th and Wood, have invested in the area specifically because of the development of the Rail Park. Post Brothers has been the “single largest private contributor” to the park’s development, asserted Jonathan Coyle, property manager at the building.
Neighborhood groups such as the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation are concerned about equitable development in the area.
“PCDC in the beginning was quite vocal against [the Rail Park],” said McEneaney, who started the project in 2003, “and they wanted to tear down the viaduct because they said they wanted to have land for affordable housing.”
PCDC is now constructing the 23-story mixed-use Eastern Tower at 10th and Vine, which will provide some of that housing, along with amenities like a community center. The Rail Park is also intended to serve as a community gathering space. Drawing residents out into shared spaces is an integral part of creating a sense of connection and belonging, according to Temple prof Doshna.
Areas around similar new park projects in other cities, such as The 606 trail in Chicago, have also experienced surges of change.
“The biggest challenge we face is that we’re linked to the potential for gentrification and displacement,” said Caroline O’Boyle, the Trust for Public Land’s director of programs and partnerships for The 606. “It’s really important to figure out what the long-term strategies are for maintaining the ability of the current residents to be able to stay and enjoy the asset you’re building.”
In terms of solutions, O’Boyle suggests programming that helps tenants achieve homeownership, as well as enacting zoning restrictions.
Philadelphia currently has policies in place that give developers bonuses to build higher than zoning permits if they provide affordable units or contribute to the Housing Trust Fund, which provides repair assistance and construction of new homes to Philadelphians living in poverty. And currently pending in City Council are several bills with different approaches to mandating or incentivizing developers build affordable housing in new developments. Whether any of them make it through debate and become law remains to be seen.
Either way, the Callowhill neighborhood has already been redeveloping over the past two decades, so additional development is not something that can be pinned solely on the Rail Park.
As their process continues, Friends of the Rail Park is set on having conversations with the communities it strives to serve. Engagement, McEneaney said, is the group’s “biggest challenge and most important work.”
Turning an eyesore into a productive space that adds social, economic, and environmental value to the neighborhood is no simple feat; planning, funding, and executing the project are only the beginning of the deep considerations necessary by residents about how they would like to see their community evolve in the future.