City and Regional Planning

A Vision For Schuykill Rail Yards

2011 Studio

The Schuylkill Yards, a 96-acre railyard serving
Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, is located in a prime
area for development. This studio examined the site's context in the neighborhood, city, and region, and provided recommendations for how to better connect and incorporate the Schuylkill Yards intothe surrounding urban fabric. These recommendations include design strategies, governance structures, green infrastructure creation, and community benefits

Design

The design moves proposed for the Schuylkill Yards complete a series of visions and principles that seek to improve connectivity, create an iconic destination, respect the site's natural systems, build civic partnerships, promote equitable development, and help Philadelphia grow as a regional center. Thus, the resulting site plan works on three levels: as a district, as a piece within a larger urban fabric, and as a node of centrality along the Northeast Corridor.

The final proposed site plan is divided into separate frameworks: movement, public realm and development. The movement framework is focused on using the Schuylkill Yards to strengthen the connections between West Philadelphia, Center City, and the Art Museum area, thus creating a civic triangle. To achieve this, several major infrastructure moves are proposed for both sides of the Schuylkill River. First, the street grid adjacent to the Schuylkill Yards will be extended onto the site itself. Due to the significant grade change that currently exists between the site and its surrounding neighborhoods, extending the street grid is only possible if the SEPTA Regional Rail tracks on the entire surface of the Schuylkill River, and will enable the creation of a new train station at 22nd Street.

Similar to the major infrastructure moves on the western portion of the site, the recommendations for the eastern half of the Schuylkill Yards will require significant time and investment. First, the plan calls for decking to be placed above Amtrak's Northeast Corridor tracks. This platform will meet the river, thus providing waterfront access. In order to successfully accomplish this, the Vine Street Expressway's southbound lane at the I-76 interchange will need to be relocated. Removing this lane, which is currently ensconced in a confusing knot of roads, will lower the height of the highway by 20 feet. The southbound lane of I-676 will be relocated to the eastern side of the Schuylkill River and will run as a two-way boulevard along the right-of-way currently occupied by a duplicate-service CSX freight western portion of the site are buried. The tunnel that will house these Regional Rail tracks will continue beneath the line. This Eastern Parkway will meet up with I-76 at Grays Ferry Avenue. The final major movement recommendation is to enhance pedestrian connections across the river. In particular, the site plan calls for the construction of two pedestrian
bridges between the site and the eastern side of the Schuylkill Banks.

The second framework for the proposed site plan revolves around the public realm. The recommendations made under this section strengthen the pedestrian connections and experience to and through the site. One of the primary elements of the public realm section is the creation of a park system. This is not limited to the parks within Schuylkill Yards, but also calls for the renovation of Drexel Park and the creation of new green spaces around the site. These include a small park adjacent to the Spring Garden Street Bridge as well as a new green element at the base of one of the proposed pedestrian bridges. Finally, while not a neighborhood park, the plan also calls for the incorporation of sustainable features, such as green roofs, in a number of newly constructed buildings.

In addition to these smaller public realm moves, this plan also calls for the creation of two larger parks: Highline Park and Schuylkill River Park West. Highline Park will run in a north-south direction along the new 30th Street Boulevard from the Spring Garden Street Bridge to Penn Park, and will be located beneath the CSX elevated freight line. This will not only act as a public amenity for pedestrians, but will also house stormwater management features.

Schuylkill River Park West will sit on top of the deck that will run along the eastern portion of the Schuylkill Yards site. The park will provide linkages to Fairmount Park East, the Ben Franklin Parkway and the Art Museum with the aid of the new proposed pedestrian bridges. Providing connections between other public realm spaces is not the only public benefit. This park will be programmed to accommodate a variety of activities such as reserved areas for recreation, civic functions, and public art, and will contain a riverfront esplanade that links West Park and Penn Park.

The final element of the public realm design recommendations involves the areas around 30th Street Station. In particular, the site plan proposes the creation of a new public plaza on the northwest corner
of 30th and Market Streets (directly across from the train station). This plaza will include a café, outdoor seating, and a public fountain. In addition to the new public plaza, the areas around 30th Street Station will have enhanced pedestrian connections. This includes the creation of a pedestrian walkway on the former SEPTA Regional Rail bridge, the extension of Woodland Walk from Penn's campus to 30th Street Station, and the creation of a more pedestrian-friendly JFK Boulevard.

The final design framework revolves around development. The site plan conceives of the entire Schuylkill Yards site as a mixed-use district. Thus, the land uses have been allocated to specific areas of the site. All commercial uses will be located within a 10 minute walk of the train station. As Drexel University is expected to continue to expand in the coming years, the southwest edge of the site will be an extension of the university, with new institutional buildings and campus housing. The northern portion of the site will contain residential uses that will mimic the neighborhood fabric of Powelton Village and Mantua, albeit with greater density. In addition to on-site development uses, the plan is intended to drive development in both West Philadelphia and Center City. In West Philadelphia, this will likely manifest in the creation of small businesses, community agriculture, and affordable infill housing. In Center City, the creation of a new 22nd Street transit station will spur catalytic development (mostly office uses) around that area.

Governance

As a complex, long-term public-private partnership, the Schuylkill Yards will require a governance structure that is capable of navigating the planning, funding, and political needs that such an initiative entails. Based on models that have been successfully applied in projects like Battery Park City and the Hudson Yards, the central entity that this vision recommends creating for that purpose is the Schuylkill Yards Development Corporation (SYDC). The SYDC will be a not-for-profit development corporation whose mission is to plan, create, coordinate, and maintain the development of the Schuylkill Yards in the hopes that it will become a new prime destination for Philadelphians and visitors. Through public-private partnerships that seek to leverage public funding to attract private investment, the development of the Schuylkill Yards will promote economic and cultural vitality of Philadelphia, generate additional tax revenue for the city, and connect Center City with West Philadelphia seamlessly into the urban fabric.

In order to ensure that development follows the values and principles set forth in this vision, one of the SYDC's first actions must be the approval of a master plan for the Schuylkill Yards. Such a document should assume a strong role in guiding future growth, but should also remain flexible enough to accommodate changing economic conditions and stakeholder priorities. Given the pivotal position that these groups will play in the development of the site, engaging them and forming partnerships with them should be another early focus of the SYDC. The boundaries of this organization incorporate Mantua, Powelton Village, and parts of University City and Center City. The inclusion of these areas will provide current stakeholders with formal representation under the SYDC and make it easier to seamlessly integrate the site with its surroundings. These boundaries will also enable the SYDC to implement the Green Infrastructure District (GID) and economic development policies that are essential to extending the benefits of development to adjacent neighborhoods.

In addition to incorporating stakeholder groups, the board of the SYDC must include influential elected leaders who can secure funding and marshal political support for its work. Upon its inception, both State and City officials will have to collaborate to draft the enabling legislation for the creation of the development corporation. In regard to financing development, the SYDC must be able to gather public and private funding to support initial infrastructure-a role that the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) could champion as a partner in the project. Ultimately, the $3.2 billion infrastructure cost would be funded by debt market, government funding programs, and direct government subsidy. Even with these funding sources, extending the KOIZ tax abatements for new projects will likely be necessary to attract private developers to the Schuylkill Yards. As development continues, the site's status as a prime regional destination should catalyze further growth in adjacent neighborhoods.

Social Policy

The development of the site is clearly in the long-term economic interests of the city and region. Even so, the overall benefit of large projects like the Schuylkill Yards can be partially negated by lax business practices which channel development dollars out of the area and by rising peripheral property values which endanger residents' ability to remain in their homes. For that reason, it is necessary to implement a set of carefully-considered policies to ensure that growth serves to strengthen nearby communities while avoiding the negative externalities of gentrification. Some of the best precedents for undertaking development in partnership with communities can be found in the initiatives sponsored and implemented by the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Penn's West Philadelphia Initiatives transformed neighborhoods to the west of campus through a combination of home ownership promotion, public education improvement, and commercial corridor development, while Drexel has pioneered a program to increase healthy food access in nearby communities. While these voluntary programs present a good model on which to build, the extent of the public investment in the Schuylkill Yards justifies a more comprehensive policy-based strategy. In order to combat the effects of rising property values and increased demand for real estate near the Schuylkill Yards, the City should approve the homestead tax exemption. Similarly, the application of an inclusionary zoning district in the area would ensure that buyers and renters of diverse socioeconomic conditions could reside in the new community that is created.

While these measures effectively address problems with occupied land, additional programs are needed to manage the excess of vacant land in Mantua. The approval of land banking enabling legislation by the Commonwealth could complement the the city's current vacant land reform strategy by facilitating the assembly of parcels for redevelopment. While it is more challenging to implement, a community land trust is an alternative tool that could relieve pressure in the real estate market by preserving land for community development projects or affordable housing. Finally, the conversion of some vacant plots into community gardens and public spaces is useful as a means of increasing fresh food access and enhancing the public environment.

Still other policies can leverage investment in the Yards to improve the conditions of adjacent land and the economic prospects of existing residents. As part of a specialized community benefits agreement, developers could be required to pay a "social impact fee" into a trust fund that the SYDC could designate for use in local revitalization initiatives. The SYDC could also manage a revolving loan fund for home repairs for low-income residents, which could be capitalized by a $1 million dollar investment from Drexel. Lastly, a trio of workforce development initiatives can help connect residents of Powelton Village and Mantua to living-wage jobs that are generated through the Schuylkill Yards development. While job skills training can serve the large young adult population in these neighborhoods that are not connected to Penn or Drexel, first-source hiring will guarantee the existence of a job pool for these qualified workers. Likewise, business development support can provide opportunities for self-employment and facilitate the revitalization of blighted commercial corridors. The Schuylkill Yards have the good fortune to be bounded by institutions and communities that are actively articulating plans for their future. By pairing physical development with specialized community and economic development policies, the Schuylkill Yards can realize these visions and increase their benefit to the city and region.

Green Infrastructure

From Fairmount Park to the Fairmount Waterworks, Philadelphia historically led the nation in planning for the protection and purity of municipal water systems. Even so, the city's once-groundbreaking sewer system is deficient by modern environmental standards, both due to its age and the possibility for combined sewer overflow (CSO), or the release of untreated runoff into waterways during major storm events. In keeping with tradition, the City and the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) have responded with an ambitious series of plans designed to achieve Mayor Michael Nutter's goal of making Philadelphia "the greenest city in America" in terms of stormwater management.

As infrastructure is gradually replaced and upgraded at the citywide level, the Schuylkill Yards should capitalize on its status as an iconic public-private investment to create a sphere of advanced green infrastructure on site and in its surrounding neighborhoods. By establishing a Green Infrastructure District (GID), the Schuylkill Yards Development Corporation will manage a collective and coordinated effort to develop, maintain, and promote a network of stormwater management infrastructure in the area

The GID will:
• Create and manage a Green Streets program that connects the Schuylkill Yards to the surrounding neighborhoods;
• Leverage investment from area stakeholders;
• Organize workshops that will educate the public on the importance of green infrastructure, and how to implement easy ecological improvements, such as bioswales;
• Install and manage retention basins on the Schuylkill Yards development site.

Since new PWD billing policies will charge customers based on the amount of impervious surface on their property, the GID's focus on greening paved areas will improve the long-term cost-efficiency of properties within the Schuylkill Yards boundaries, Powelton Village, and Mantua. Similarly, the GID could eventually expand to include investment in renewable energy through organizations like the Philadelphia-based Energy Cooperative, leading to additional cost savings for landowners. Finally, the extension of the GID beyond the boundaries of the Schuylkill Yards can help to improve the connection between the site and its neighborhoods as well as enhance the quality of the pedestrian experience for all citizens. The GID has the potential to realize progressive infrastructure goals, improve the long-term marketability of properties, and set the Schuylkill Yards apart as a "best practice" example in water systems management in the Philadelphia tradition.

Conclusion

Transportation infrastructure, job growth, demand for real estate, growing population, and civic amenities each exist somewhere in Philadelphia, but nowhere outside of the Schuylkill Yards do they coalesce around 96 acres of developable land at the heart of the metropolitan center. If ever an area justified a bold vision in the Philadelphia tradition, it is the Schuylkill Yards, and these characteristics form the heart of a vision for the site as part of the 21st century city.