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Commuters vs. the community: Should a PATCO station reopen at Franklin Square? | Pro/Con

Local commuters and community members debate.

A PATCO High-Speed Line train bound for New Jersey passes the closed Franklin Square station at Seventh and Race Streets. The agency plans to refurbish the station and reopen it.
A PATCO High-Speed Line train bound for New Jersey passes the closed Franklin Square station at Seventh and Race Streets. The agency plans to refurbish the station and reopen it.Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photograher

Last week, PATCO’s Franklin Square Station was awarded a $12.6M federal grant to go toward reopening the long-closed transportation hub. The estimated cost of the station’s reopening is about $25.2 million, according to the Department of Transportation.

The station, near Sixth and Race Streets, opened in 1936, but shut for good in 1979 after intermittent closures over the years. For more than a decade, the Delaware River Port Authority has talked about reopening the stop.

News of the grant brought cheers from some, including many Jersey-to-Center City commuters, who see the reopened stop as a convenient traveling point between the Garden State and Philadelphia. However, some in the Chinatown community worry about the impact of the station on their neighborhood, particularly with an eye toward the use of Franklin Square Park.

The Inquirer turned to a regular PATCO commuter and Chinatown community activists to debate: Should PATCO reopen a train station at Franklin Square?

Yes: New station would ease traffic jams and help with crosstown travel

Congestion in Center City has nowhere to go but worse. Reopening PATCO’s Franklin Square Station could help ease at least some traffic jams by encouraging more New Jersey commuters to take the train — and by enhancing the line’s usefulness as a crosstown subway.

From its last stop at 16th and Locust streets, PATCO already connects Rittenhouse Square, Midtown Village, and other densely populated neighborhoods with the regional transit hub at 8th and Market. Adding a Franklin Square stop will provide a direct link to downtown’s growing northeastern corner. The $30 million project is fully funded, including a $12.6 million federal grant announced this week, and the station is expected to reopen in 2023.

Officials at the Delaware River Port Authority, PATCO’s parent, estimate Franklin Square will attract as many as 1,500 riders and take between 300 and 500 private cars off the streets. The second is a modest number, especially given that 440,000 vehicles a day travel in the 2.3-square-mile area bounded by Vine and South streets and the Delaware and the Schuylkill. But expanding the subway line’s reach and convenience also could mean fewer rideshare/taxi trips by residents of Center City trying to get across town. Officials say capacity is available to increase the frequency of intra-city trains if demand materializes. With its fleet of reconditioned cars rolling and major track, elevator, and escalator improvements complete or underway, PATCO is seeing daily ridership on target to hit 40,000 — its highest since 1994.

A history of multiple openings and closings — Franklin Square Station’s latest incarnation will be the fourth since it debuted in 1936 — would seem to suggest the stop is in the wrong place, if not cursed. But the proposed new headhouse near 7th and Race will be three very long blocks north and a long block east of 8th and Market. Franklin Square will neither be “too close” to that PATCO stop, as some critics insist, nor too distant from Chinatown, Old City, Chinatown North/Callowhill, or even Northern Liberties. Center City residents and South Jersey commuters who work along the northern stretch of Independence Mall and in Old City also will be likely to use it, as will visitors to the Constitution Center and to lovely and lively Franklin Square itself.

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Reopening Franklin Square Station makes sense because — promising talk about converting Chestnut Street into a busway and connecting the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard aside — additions to mass transit infrastructure downtown, such as extending PATCO to West Philly or adding a Market-Frankford Line stop between 15th and 30th streets, are unlikely in any foreseeable future. Already in place, however, is Franklin Square, with its impressive expanses of classic green and white subway tiles largely intact despite a cosmetic makeover for the Bicentennial.

There’s also some historical symmetry at work: The three PATCO stations between 9th and 16th streets were built early in the 20th century as part of the never-completed Locust Street Subway. With the construction of PATCO between Lindenwold and Center City in the late 1960s, the moribund stations and tracks were incorporated into the commuter line, and came back to life. Now it’s Franklin Square’s turn to be in the right place at the right time.

Kevin Riordan, a New Jersey resident who commutes daily to Center City, is a member of the Inquirer’s editorial board.

No: Too many questions, not enough community input

Ten years of planning and a $30 million budget later, Delaware River Port Authority has not held one significant public meeting in Chinatown to engage local families, seniors, day cares, and schools, the main users of Franklin Square. One resident was told, without irony, that there have been public meetings held in New Jersey.

Noticeably absent from press coverage is the perspective of actual park users.

DRPA proposes to construct a large headhouse in the southwest corner of the park. Most park users access the park through the southwest entrance, by crossing the badly designed Franklin and 7th Street intersections. Pedestrians and bicyclists regularly have to navigate cars speeding towards the on-ramp for the I-95 highway, which is located one block north. How does DRPA plan to address pedestrian and bicyclist safety during construction?

DRPA’s planned headhouse would take a portion of the park’s green space next to the playground, which is currently used as free play area by local early childhood education centers. The park is heavily used by these schools, which are required by law to bring children for outdoor play when the temperature is over 25 degrees. Does DRPA have a plan to re-site the play area?

Three separate feasibility studies have been completed by DRPA, which all call into question whether the new station would increase ridership to justify the investment. Is there even ridership demand for the station, when there is an existing station a block away at 8th and Market Streets?

Other questions: What are the environmental impacts? Will there be bilingual signage for the Chinese- and Spanish-speaking communities who live in the area?

We have so many questions — all unanswered. Community members have been reaching out to DRPA to try to work with them. While DRPA initially introduced their plans to community groups, including the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, they have not responded to expressed concerns and attempts to schedule meetings to engage the broader community.

Chinatown gets a bad rap for being opposed to virtually everything, it seems. Our own neighbors accuse us of being opposed to bike lanes, clean streets, and new parks. Why, some people have wondered, would anyone be against what is so clearly in the common interest?

Our opposition to bad processes is often perceived as opposition to progress altogether. That’s false. The PATCO station at Franklin Square Park is a prime example.

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Chinatown has learned that often, what the government defines as the common interest can lead to direct harm to our community. That is why meaningful community engagement is not optional when it comes to planning proposals. Whether it is a highway, a park, or a new transit station, these projects all call for a conversation with those directly affected so that we can ensure that everyone, including the community, can truly benefit.

We know the history of our neighborhood and how the park is currently used by the local community. This call does not come from an instinct for resistance. It is rooted in a desire to preserve the basic mechanisms of democracy — to be informed, and to have a voice in public decisions that impact us and our children.

Sarah Yeung is a community advocate. Carol Wong is the Owner/Director of Chinatown Learning Center. John Chin, Executive Director, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation; Ellen Somekawa, Executive Director, Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School; Alix Webb, Executive Director, Asian Americans United also contributed.

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