THERE ARE 96 acres of prime real estate hiding in plain sight in the middle of our resurgent city. We scuttle past them every day by car or train. In a land-rich city like Philadelphia, it is often hard to see the treasures lying just beneath our feet.
I'm talking about the rail yards at 30th Street.
Bounded by the Schuylkill on the east, JFK Boulevard on the south, 32nd Street to the west and Spring Garden Street to the north, the rail yards are the most significant piece of real estate in the city. The parcel sits astride the booming high-tech education-and-medicine hub of University City and the ready-to-pop potential energy of West Market Street. Falling more than 80 feet in elevation from Powelton Village to the river, the site accommodates Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, the Penn Coach Yards (a service yard for the railroad) and SEPTA's Regional Rail tracks.
This dusty, noisy, obstructed remnant of the industrial age is poised to be reimagined. Amtrak, along with Drexel University, Brandywine Realty Trust and other partners, will receive bids Monday from professional teams vying to prepare a master plan for the rail yards and environs. They are to be applauded for tackling this project.
With my planning students at PennDesign, we studied the potential for this area in 2011. The site and its immediate surroundings can suture the chasm between University City and Center City with a seamless stretch of urban development and open spaces. Achieving a first-class work of urbanism at the rail yards will not be easy. To do it well, we will need to think long term and visionary, as there will be many hurdles.
Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that the site presents:
* The planning must be driven by the highest urban-design standards and aspirations. We cannot settle for second-rate urbanism here. This means not only world-class architecture but world-class public spaces, public art, cultural institutions and programs. We should look to HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany, to see how we can turn former industrial zones into smart, sophisticated, transit-friendly urban development. That project just received the Urban Land Institute's prestigious Global Award for Excellence.
* We cannot be afraid to confront big, hairy infrastructure challenges. These include sinking the Regional Rail lines, decking over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and cutting through the ganglia of highway infrastructure that engirdles the site on the east.
Look to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade along the East River atop the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for inspiration. The contorted hump over the Vine Street Expressway has got to go. It also means creating a new regional rail station at 22nd Street and JFK to unleash West Market Street's potential.
* We must create great public central-gathering spaces like the heralded new King's Cross Square in London. A welcoming new plaza between the Bulletin Building and the station stretching from Market Street to JFK would serve as an entrance to a 21st-century transit hub drawing the Market-Frankford El, Amtrak and Regional Rail lines into one elegant station. This new square would harness the creative place-making energy of the University City District's successful Porch at 30th Street Station project.
* And thinking beyond the site, we must connect to the Ben Franklin Parkway and its neighborhoods with graceful pedestrian bridges like the lovely Three Bridges of the Borneo Sporenburg project in Amsterdam. What the rail yard needs is a vision. What should this part of the city look like? How do we express our early 21st-century urban values in city building? What risks will we take to ensure that the site will become an irreplaceable legacy asset to future generations - attracting people and capital to the city in perpetuity?
Philadelphia hasn't attempted anything on this scale of engineering and city building since the completion of the Center City Commuter Tunnel in 1984. In a city that brought you the incomparable Fairmount Park (East and West Park plus the Wissahickon) beginning in 1844 and the majestic Ben Franklin Parkway, which celebrates its centennial in 2017, will this project be our gift to the 22nd century?