Last year Franklin Square Park attracted 900,000 visitors. The holiday light show and family-friendly New Year's Eve spectacle, alone, drew roughly 5,000 people. As the park’s attendance continues to grow, one question remains - will Franklin Square Station ever reopen?
Of all the queries PlanPhilly readers send, whether or not Franklin Square Station will reopen is one of the more common. Given the success of the recent Franklin Square Park winter programming, we thought we would broach the topic.
On one side of the issue are people like Amy Needle and Meryl Levitz who represent Historic Philadelphia, Inc. and Visit Philadelphia, respectively. Both support the notion of reopening Franklin Square Station and cite the potential impact it would have on the area, which has gone through a dramatic transformation since the station closed in 1979.
On the other side of the issue is the station owner, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA).
Today Franklin Square Station is an abandoned PATCO Speedline stop across the street from Franklin Square Park. The station was built in 1936 as part of a former transit agency’s service across the Ben Franklin Bridge, but it closed several years later due to low ridership. PATCO reopened the station in 1976 during the Bicentennial and used it until 1979, when it was closed again due to low ridership.
In the 35 years since the station closed, though, the surrounding area has changed. Franklin Square Park has morphed from a “needle park” into one of Historic Philadelphia’s crown jewels, and the adjacent neighborhoods have become bustling, walkable hubs of activity. These improvements make some wonder: Would the station get enough ridership today to justify reopening it?
In an email conversation, DRPA Director of Communications Timothy Ireland would say little more than, “A number of times over the years PATCO has conducted cost/benefit analyses, and we’ve concluded every time that the station would not generate enough ridership to justify the cost of reopening.”
When asked for more specific information on the cost of reopening the station and ridership projections, Ireland said, “PATCO is preoccupied with more pressing matters.”
At the same time Franklin Square Station was being reopened for the Bicentennial, Franklin Square Park was renovated, and the large fountain was fixed and turned on.
“Shortly after the Bicentennial was complete the fountain started leaking into the station and apparently that was when the fountain was shut off and the station was closed, and then it really sat dormant, the whole park, for 30 years,” said Needle, president and CEO of Historic Philadelphia, Inc.
“In those 30 years it really became a place that no one wanted to go,” she said.
When efforts to reopen Franklin Square Park began, Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, remembers finding the park empty aside from a man cleaning his boot with a knife in the broken fountain and a couple homeless people.
“Aside from those folks, nobody was there, and the weeds were up to your waist,” she said.
Today the well manicured, seven-acre space is a green oasis with a working fountain, carousel, historic Philadelphia themed mini-golf course, SquareBurger restaurant, playground and one of few memorials in the country dedicated to fallen police officers and firefighters.
“It was really important that we added attractions to the square because the thought was if it was just another green space there really wouldn’t be a reason for people to go, that people needed to do something there if it was going to be brought back to life,” Needle said.
Life surged back and the park’s constituency has continued to grow.
“People just love the place and the transformation of it,” Levitz said. “Nobody thought it could be done, that you could take a place like that, redesign it and have people come.”
When Historic Philadelphia, Inc. reopened the park, the organization expected it to be an immediate tourist draw.
“What we didn’t realize was how much of a residential space it was going to be, which is great because now it really functions as both, and especially during the off tourist season residents use it more than tourists,” Needle said.
Today people from Chinatown, Old City and Northern Liberties all frequent the park. Many pass through on foot on their way to work.
“As wonderful as Franklin Square has become and as many great accolades as we’ve gotten in the press, there usually is a comment online or a follow up that says, ‘Yes, but when is that station reopening?’” Needle said.
Opening Franklin Square Station for a third time “would be a huge, huge difference,” she said.
“Several years ago when we thought that it could be a possibility, we were overjoyed because the idea that people could get here from New Jersey would be huge. The idea people could get here from Market Street, they could go from one square to another if they wanted to - it would just make it so much easier.”
Right now most park-goers coming in from New Jersey or the Pennsylvania suburbs are driving and parking.
“Parking is a big problem because we literally have no parking around the square,” Needle said. Of the few complaints the park has received, parking has been on of the biggest issues.
Levitz noted that the station would also be a way for Philadelphians to get to the growing number of attractions along Camden’s waterfront and that it would open up Chinatown, The Constitution Center and Franklin Square.
But according to Tony Desantis, a member of the DRPA citizens advisory committee and a Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP) board member, reopening the station would require a tremendous undertaking.
“In order to make it ADA compliant, in order for them to properly open it … they’re going to have to spend several million dollars,” Desantis said. “And considering the Port Authority’s current fiscal situation and also considering that most if not all the patronage they’re considering to get there are riders that would have gotten off at 8th and Market anyway, their attitude is there’s really no purpose in opening the station.”
Levitz argues that using 8th and Market Station is not a viable alternative.
“Eighth and Market is really much farther away from Franklin Square than they think, and especially if you’re with little children, you’re with old people, you’re an out of towner, 8th and Market is a bit much for people, or it’s raining or any of those,” she said. “People want to come up and be there.”
“I think at this point it’s kind of off the table,” Desantis said.
Still, Needle and Levitz seem to be holding out hope.
“As the city becomes more sensitive to transportation needs, whether it’s the Reading Viaduct or the rights of bicyclists or how walkable our city is, I think it’s inevitable that they would look at that stop,” Levitz said.
“It’s like all of the sudden Philadelphia is realizing that you have to, even though we have little narrow streets and they’re adorable, you have to look at people’s transportation needs in a larger way and try to anticipate them.”
Christine covers transportation and writes about everything from pedestrian concerns to bicycle infrastructure, bridges, trail networks, public transit and more. Her favorite assignments send her bushwhacking through Philadelphia’s yet-to-be-cleared bike trails, catching a glimpse of SEPTA’s inner workings or pounding the pavement to find out what pedestrians really think. Christine also covers community news for Eyes on the Street, where her coverage ranges from food sovereignty to public art and urban greening. She first joined PlanPhilly in fall 2011 as an intern through a partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods website. During the internship her reporting on the Housing Authority’s surplus property auctions earned an award from the Society of Professional Journalists.