Look at an aerial photo of Philadelphia and you will see a dark line that starts just north of Girard Avenue and snakes to the southwest, where it veers away from SEPTA’s Ninth Street viaduct and branches into two. One track curves west and heads out (mostly underground) to the Schuylkill River and Fairmount Park, while the other turns south, terminating abruptly at Vine Street. This is the southern end of the Reading Viaduct, a rotting and abandoned four-track right-of-way that last brought trains into Reading Terminal in 1984.
Kyle Gradinger, an urban planning graduate student, first saw it while working on a project to identify Center City open space possibilities. “I went up there on a Saturday to see what this long tentacle was,” Gradinger explained. “I found another world. You are above the city, with fantastic views, but there is also this sense of being alone.”
The question of what to do with this potential development site has been hanging over Center City for 20 years. Can it be a catalyst for revitalization or will revitalization happen only when it comes down?
Chinatown residents see it as blight, impeding the natural expansion of their community. A group of advocates led by artist Sarah McEneaney, who has lived in the Callowhill loft district near the viaduct for 25 years, want to preserve it and find new uses for it. The owner, the Reading Company, would be responsible for environmental remediation if it sold the structure. The city’s position has been that it is too expensive to take down and too expensive to buy. Since there is no obvious solution, it seemed the perfect challenge for Penn Praxis, the student-faculty clinical consulting practice in the School of Design.
Gradinger and Penn Praxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg decided to organize a charrette. “Charrette is a French term from the days of the École des Beaux-Arts, the 19th century’s premier school of architecture in the world,” said Steinberg. “Today, charrette has come to mean working with incredible intensity up to the last minute.”
Like a research project stuck on fast forward, the Reading Viaduct charrette was highly structured and focused on coming up with solutions. The exercise started with briefing information delivered on Monday, Feb. 5. A lecture by respected German landscape architect Peter Latz followed on Thursday, with presentations from community groups on Friday and a site visit on Saturday. Students then had 24 hours to assemble a 24- by 72-inch presentation for the judging on Sunday afternoon.
A total of 57 students, broken up into teams representing at least three different disciplines from the School of Design, participated, producing 11 proposals. The winning entry, which was praised for its creativity and low cost, used light—and even Chinese lanterns—to transform the aging hulk and create a festival atmosphere. “They all did tremendously,” said Steinberg. “The jury had wonderful things to say about them.”
Like last year’s charrette that shone a spotlight on planning for Penn’s Landing, this charrette was designed to illuminate an urban design opportunity and start a conversation.
“ We are very interested in how civic dialogue can transform cities,” said Steinberg.
Originally published on February 26, 2004