Philadelphia's hotly anticipated, High Line-esque Rail Park will open to the public on June 14 with a new leader and freshly installed benches for summertime people watching.
The June 14 opening will mark the completion of the park's first quarter-mile phase, extending from the 1100 block of Callowhill Street to the intersection of North Broad and Noble Street in the Callowhill neighborhood. When complete, the park will stretch three miles on two abandoned elevated railroad lines, connecting 10 neighborhoods to Fairmount Park and Center City.
Built on the bones of Philadelphia’s rail heritage, the potentially transformative development began as an idea championed by volunteers who lived in the shadows of the derelict former Reading Railroad viaduct. On Thursday, that group of volunteers, Friends of the Rail Park, announced their first executive director, Kevin Dow.
The lifelong Philadelphian most recently served as Senior Vice President of Impact and Innovation at United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey and previously, as the Senior Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Commerce Department.
In his new role, Dow will be charged with creating and executing a community-focused comprehensive strategic plan for the new park. "Kevin is passionate about our city and dedicated to improving the quality of life for its citizens. He will drive community engagement to realize our vision for a truly inclusive, connective public space in Philadelphia,” said Liz Mallie, Board Chair of the Friends of the Rail Park.
The joint effort by Center City District (CCD), Friends of the Rail Park (the result of a merger of two prior community groups, Viaduct Greene and the Reading Viaduct Project), the Philadelphia Commerce Department, and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, began in earnest in 2010, once CCD saw the success of the first phase of the Highline in New York, which opened in 2009. The business improvement district, which operates Dilworth Park and manages other public spaces in Center City, has led fundraising, design and construction of the park, and upon completion, it will be turned over to the city.
With plentiful shade trees and landscaped walking paths, the Rail Park will provide a much-needed green space for the surrounding neighborhoods and a destination point to bring activity from Center City past the Vine Street Expressway, which has been a physical and psychological barrier dividing Chinatown and Center City from Callowhill since the 1960s when building a crosstown expressway was first proposed.
In Chinatown, a lack of public space, along with with a dearth of affordable housing, continues to be a sticking point for the community that has experienced a 53 percent increase in the number of families with children under 18 between 2000 and 2010 Census alone, Malcolm Burnley reported in September 2017. According to a 2004 report by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commision, “approximately 25 percent of Chinatown’s land area, housing, and commercial stock has been lost to urban redevelopment projects,” such as the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Burnley reported. The potential risk, Burnley continued, ties with the Rail Park’s perceived benefits. “The one robust expansion of outdoor recreation space underway, the Reading Viaduct, figures to increase gentrification further — and while it may provide benefits to Chinatown, it also stands to attract a bevy of tourists.”
The Rail Park’s opening date was pushed back from its original date in February due to the discovery of structurally deficient support beams during the construction process. The cost of the first phase is about $10.3 million. To build out the full three-mile park, Friends of the Rail Park and its partners at CCD and the city will have raise hundreds of millions more. Dow's hiring was made possible through a grant from the William Penn Foundation, invested in Friends of the Rail Park in partnership with the Fairmount Park Conservancy.
Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation has also provided grant support to WHYY.