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Trolleys in the garden: New landscape and cafe transform bleak West Philly junction | Inga Saffron

The 40th Street Trolley Portal finally feels like part of the Spruce Hill neighborhood again.

Septa trollies emerging from the 40th Street portal into the new landscaped garden. A new cafe helps animate the space.
Septa trollies emerging from the 40th Street portal into the new landscaped garden. A new cafe helps animate the space.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN

Warning: As you emerge from the SEPTA trolley tunnel at 40th Street into the bright light of day, you may feel momentarily disoriented. What was once a vast concrete plateau, crisscrossed by a tangle of trolley tracks, has been transformed over the last few months into a luxuriant expanse of meadow flowers, native shrubs, and Princeton elms. It's as if you had somehow slipped through a wormhole and arrived in an entirely different sector of the universe.

Luckily, it's still located in West Philadelphia.

Welcome to the Trolley Portal Gardens. The newly upgraded SEPTA junction is the latest greening project from the University City District. But it is far more than your typical landscaping job. In renovating the commuter crossroads, the district — a private group founded by Penn and Drexel — has also created a vital community space for Spruce Hill, a neighborhood struggling to remain attractive to long-term residents.

The first thing you notice, of course, is that the topography has been thoroughly altered. The old portal was relentlessly flat and stretched on for nearly an acre. The concrete pad, where four SEPTA trolley lines converge, formed a de facto borderland between the Penn campus and Spruce Hill. As much as trolleys are the lifeblood of West Philadelphia, the large, barren space drained life from the area.

Now, when the trolleys pull into the portal, they weave through a varied landscape of planted mounds, lush rain gardens, and large planters, all designed by Andropogon, the Philadelphia firm that just won this year's top prize from the American Society of Landscape Architects. The flatness is further relieved by a two-story pavilion and a small public plaza, built next to the trolley tunnel.

The pavilion, designed by Group G, is as transformational as the gardens. Faced in cypress shingles, it houses an American-style diner operated by developer Ken Weinstein, who runs concessions at several other SEPTA stops. Because the diner will be open from early morning until late in the evening, it makes the portal more than just a place for commuters. The restaurant should also help reestablish activity along Baltimore Avenue, which has been treated like the back end of the Penn campus, rather than a transition to the elegant Spruce Hill neighborhood.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that the trolleys are the reason that West Philadelphia exists. Spruce Hill, famous for being one of America first "streetcar suburbs," was developed in the late 19th century after the lines were extended across the Schuylkill. Fast and frequent, they could spirit commuters into Center City in under 10 minutes. Today, some 1,100 trolleys pass through the portal daily.

In the early 1950s, after an underground tunnel replaced the Schuylkill Bridge, the portal began to gobble up real estate, making the distance between Spruce Hill, Penn, and the Woodlands Cemetery feel more daunting. More than a dozen Victorian homes were razed.

Maybe the most important achievement of the Portal Gardens is how its new landscape helps stitch those places back together. Andropogon even chose the Portal's plantings with the goal of attracting the bees that reside in the Woodlands' hives. The diner, called (what else?) Trolley Car Station, is now the first active retail outpost on Baltimore Avenue as you head west from the VA Medical Center.

Many of the city's business improvement districts have become crucial patrons of their local parks. The University City District has helped improve the neighborhood parks — Clark Park, especially — but it has made a specialty out of greening paved waste spaces. An early supporter of the pavement-to-parks movement, it started tinkering with the plaza in front of 30th Street Station in 2011, transforming it into a lively gathering spot now known as the Porch. It has sponsored half a dozen parklets around the neighborhood.

The Portal Garden is its most ambitious undertaking yet. The landscaping had to be carefully placed to avoid interfering with SEPTA's trolley operations. My biggest disappointment with the $2.3 million project is that the university district ran out of money for trolley shelters, which were originally designed to have green roofs. SEPTA's existing shelters, which were probably installed back in the '80s, look like ruins amid the freshly planted shrubs.

The design of the pavilion could also have been more deft. While its rustic look is meant to blend in with Andropogon's meadow-inspired plantings, Group G's design doesn't do anything with the form. It is essentially a long shed that mimics the trolley tunnel as it emerges from the earth into the portal. But even the tunnel's modernist architecture has more pizzazz.

Don't be put off by the seemingly overgrown plants in the central bed. That's how meadows grow. Tom Amoroso, who oversaw the project for Andropogon, says it will take three years for the native wildflowers to establish themselves. Once they get going, he promises a constant cycle of yellow, white, and pink flowers. Nearly 90 percent of the rainwater will be captured on site.

Andropogon did a good job of demarcating the plaza to signal that it is a purely public space. A curving communal bench defines its boundaries and gives a cozy, room-like feeling, while the center is outfitted with French-style cafe seating. Andropogon also installed brick paths to make it safer for pedestrians to navigate among the four trolley lines.

The University City District sees the plaza as a place for movie nights, craft fairs, and other local events. What was just a transit hub now promises to be a busy community hub as well.