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Plans for new West Philadelphia transit "garden" offer lessons in the Age of Trump

The area around the 40th Street Trolley Portal is being improved with a landscaped seating area and a two-story Trolley Car Diner café designed by Group G for developer ken Weinstein District.
The area around the 40th Street Trolley Portal is being improved with a landscaped seating area and a two-story Trolley Car Diner café designed by Group G for developer ken Weinstein District.Read moreAndropogon

Three weeks into the new administration, there is still a cone of silence around President Trump's infrastructure plan. Will he reward the rural states that supported his candidacy by funneling money to heartland highways? Or will he modernize big-city transit systems, bridges, and airports in the densest part of the country, home base of the reviled coastal elites?

A recently leaked list of 50 priority projects suggests, somewhat hopefully, that the answer is a little of both. Though  there is no way to know whether the list is fake news, it is encouraging to see several important rail projects ranked high. At the top is the desperately needed Gateway Program, which would add a third Hudson River rail tunnel and increase capacity on Amtrak's dangerously overstretched Northeast Corridor. Sadly, no Philadelphia rail projects rate a mention -- neither the Navy Yard nor King of Prussia extensions -- but at least the city's I-95 bridge repairs come in at No. 6.

Whatever projects his administration chooses, Trump still faces the tricky matter of paying for the promised trillion-dollar plan. He has repeatedly said half the money will come from private investors. But transportation experts are doubtful investors will want to get involved, because only select infrastructure projects, like operating toll roads or bridges, generate revenue. Most projects described as infrastructure improvements are really deferred maintenance, with little potential to turn a profit.

Where does that leave SEPTA, which struggles just to keep its existing fleet in operation, and is now in Year Two of a slow-motion fare-card rollout?

At this point, the city's best hope for transit improvements may be in thinking small and local. Next month, the University City District will break ground on a project that harnesses local funds for maximum impact: It will transform SEPTA's 40th Street Trolley Portal from a concrete Sahara into a verdant parklike oasis.

Funding for the $4 million overhaul, fancifully renamed Trolley Portal Gardens, was cobbled together from a mix of state, private, and foundation sources. No federal money is being used. And it costs SEPTA nothing. The University City District, which created the Porch at 30th Street Station in 2011, came up with the idea and is handling all the planning.

Improving a single station isn't as transformative as adding a new rail or bus line, but the changes should still be dramatic for the Spruce Hill and Woodland Terrace neighborhoods, which remain residential bastions in an area thick with student housing.

Those neighborhoods of elegant Victorian homes grew up around the trolleys, and are even known as streetcar suburbs. But the trolley portal at 40th and Baltimore is oddly divorced from the tree-lined streets that surround it. Little more than a paved expanse with bare-bones waiting areas, it is called the portal because that is where the street-level trolleys go underground, sliding in and out of the tunnel that runs between West Philadelphia and Center City.

All but two of SEPTA's trolley lines serving West Philadelphia converge there, making it one of the biggest stations in the transit agency's network. Yet, despite the large number of people who pass through the station, there are no amenities, and no reason to linger.

Nate Hommel, the University City District planner in charge of the project, says the overhaul is intended to turn the charmless space into a combination park and community hub. The new layout places a two-story cafe along Baltimore Avenue, at the main entry point to the trolley platforms. The cafe will face a welcoming circular plaza furnished with cafe seating, benches, and bike racks. Although people can continue through the plaza to the trolley platforms, the design offers commuters and non-commuters alike a pleasant place to hang out.

If that sounds like the seating area at the Porch, that's because it served as the model for Trolley Portal Gardens.

One big difference, as Hommel says, is that the Gardens are built on solid land, rather than a platform, and can accommodate more extensive plantings, including large shade trees. Designed by the landscape architecture firm Andropogon, the Gardens are laid out as a cluster of lushly planted mounds. These circular areas define the pathways through the space, while also providing nooks where people can sit.

To save money, the University City District decided to keep the three existing canopies, which shield waiting commuters from the elements. But plantings will be added to soften the metal-and-glass structures. The district has also contracted with a developer, Ken Weinstein, for the cafe building. He is paying for the structure and has hired Group G to design it. Appropriately enough, Weinstein plans to open there a branch of his Mount Airy  Trolley Car Diner.

The University City District developed the Porch in phases. As it became a popular spot for commuters and people just passing through, the managers stepped up the amenities, adding food trucks and midday concerts, as well as swings and more planters.  The Trolley Portal Gardens will be a full-fledged park and will be constructed all at once.

The University City District isn't the only group around the city focused on upgrading transit stations. The redesign of Dilworth Park, by the Center City District, started out as a transit-improvement project. More recently, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. installed a colorful light screen in the gloomy underpass that serves as the entrance to the Spring Garden El stop. Known as the Spring Garden Connector, it was designed by Cloud Gehshan, and instantly made the scary tunnel where many feared to tread feel safer.

By making these stations more attractive and welcoming, the hope is that more people will use transit. That, in turn, could boost SEPTA's case for more money and new service, if the Trump administration's promise of new infrastructure funding ever becomes a reality.