At 2:17 yesterday afternoon - a few minutes after a boat motored by on the Schuylkill and a few curious bike riders stopped to stare at the riverside clump of politicians, business officials and other, more casually dressed folk - Mayor Street and William Goetz, a CSX Transportation vice president, signed an agreement allowing people to walk right into their park.

It only took years of legal maneuvering, City Council hearings, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, negotiations and publicity to reach that point.

But the signing, on a stage set up near a weedy lot on the east bank of the river near Locust Street, marked the end of a lengthy dispute involving CSX railroad - whose tracks run near the riverbank - the city and residents.

The agreement guarantees that park users will have street-level access over the CSX tracks to Schuylkill River Park at both Race and Locust Streets. CSX had fought such access, citing safety concerns, but in the end agreed to make it happen.

Officials also announced that the Pew Charitable Trusts will contribute $195,000 for planning and design of a new pedestrian overpass to the park somewhere in the neighborhood of Spruce Street.

"I use this part of the park all the time," Street noted, adding that the area near Locust Street was the first area cleared under his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

The park, he said, "is a huge, huge amenity for the city," attracting visitors and residents alike.

"It's even more important because this trail isn't going to stop here," Street added. "This is just the beginning."

Michael Nutter, a former councilman now running for mayor, and Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, both active in pushing for access to the park, agreed that the deal with CSX held significance for revitalization along the river.

"This agreement today and the working relationship that's been developed between the city and CSX opens up new avenues of opportunity for development, for recreation, for better access to the water, and may teach us some lessons about what we should be doing with our waterfront," said Nutter. "It's brought a partnership together from the public to the private to the philanthropic, now, with Pew. It's really important."

Clarke was equally enthusiastic about the potential.

"Just look at the site and you can see the opportunities," he said. "There's no reason this can't create an environment that has restaurant activity. The current of the river is relatively slow. No reason we shouldn't have boating opportunities.

"I think its limitless."

Russell Meddin, one of the area residents who fought for access to the park, beamed.

"It's a great, great thing for Fairmount Park," he said. "It's a great, great thing for the city.

"Finally, it's a great impetus to the city to get the Schuylkill River [bicycle] trail finished to South Street, to Bartram's Garden, all the way to Fort Mifflin."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com

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