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How Amtrak Might Redefine Downtown Philadelphia

How Amtrak Might Redefine Downtown Philadelphia
Flickr/Louis Clotman

The big pricetag received most of the attention when Amtrak released its updated vision for passenger rail in the Northeast Corridor [PDF] earlier this summer: $151 billion. But it was a quieter announcement, relegated to tiny font on a service map, that's making the most noise in Philadelphia at the moment. There Amtrak suggested that Market East Station — and no longer 30th Street Station — should become the city's main rail hub in the high-speed era.

The main reason for the shift is speed. Amtrak officials told the Philadelphia Inquirer that trains entering the city from New York slow to 50 m.p.h. near the Betsy Ross Bridge, just north of the city, and again to 30 m.p.h. near the zoo, just north of 30th Street Station. Those speeds might be doubled with some track upgrades, but they'll never achieve the 37-minute travel time Amtrak wants between Philadelphia and New York by 2040.

The station change is far from certain. For that matter, so is Amtrak's vision as a whole. Still if it did occur the major beneficiary, beside speed-minded travelers in the northeast, would be Philadelphia's Market East district. A high-speed rail connection would magnify redevelopment plans already in progress for that area, says Alan Greenberger, the city's deputy mayor for economic development.

"It has potentially a very big impact on Market East and that whole side of town," says Greenberger. "It creates a commercial hub for office buildings and other people who need to be near the rail … but it also creates a desirability, assuming we can respond with local transit, for more and extended residential development within a reasonable transit reach of that station."

Market East could sure use the boost. The district extends east along Market Street from City Hall toward Independence Mall. Philadelphia City Paper recently described it as a strip of discount shops and empty lots "set to the soundtrack of the music blaring from storefront speakers." The area has a number of natural assets — Chinatown, Jefferson University, the city's convention center, and a massive (though outdated) shopping center called the Gallery — but City Paper reports that it's resisted patchwork improvements in the past:

Repeated and failed efforts at redevelopment include turning Chestnut Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s, to near disastrous effect. A decade ago, the city tried to lure a Disney theme park to Eighth and Market — and was left with estimated tens of millions of dollars in lost public monies and a gaping pit in the ground dubbed the "Disney Hole." More recently, Foxwoods considered opening a casino in Chinatown, in the Gallery and then in Strawbridge's before the effort imploded under financial duress and neighborhood protests.

Greenberger counters that the district has never really had the type of focused redevelopment effort in the works right now. That plan [PDF] emerged with the help of the city planning commission — which Greenberger chairs — in July of 2009. The strategy calls for decongesting Market Street, renovating the Gallery, emphasizing 10th Street as a major north-west artery, revitalizing the Reading Terminal Market, and encouraging new spaces for hotels and lofts.

Those are lofty goals for a district that's been down so long. But what makes this particular plan so viable is that it improves on what Market East already offers, rather than trying to overhaul the entire district from scratch. "We're not trying to turn it into something it's not," says Greenberger. "We're saying that this is a big avenue that should be a collector of multiple uses — and by the way the uses are all there within 400 feet."

Of all the potential improvements, it's the reinvention of the Gallery that the city believes will create a renewal of confidence in the area. The redevelopment plan calls for replacing the mall's "block-long monolithic façade" with vertical storefronts separated by a mid-block entrance on Market Street. Ultimately planners hope the mall's large contingent of customers will not only shop inside but also become more engaged with the street itself.

Early signs are encouraging. The managers of the Gallery recently secured the Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes the Inquirer and the Daily News, as a tenant. (The network has since been sold, but Greenberger says that won't affect the deal.) The papers took 125,000 square feet of space in a former department store building at Eighth and Market.

The city believes it can attract even more tenants with a new law [PDF] that lets developers place "large format signs" (read: digital billboards) outside buildings — provided they invest at least $10 million in the area. Supporters believe the law will inject some life into Market Street without making it Times Square-lite. The newspaper company will "likely" be the first to put the ordnance to use, says Greenberger, though it's not the only proposal being considered.

Another part of the redevelopment plan is the creation of an intermodal transit center that would bring some order to the multitude of interstate buses that make their terminus (and clog many curbsides) in Market East. The center would integrate those buses with several local rail lines that come through the district. Add in a high-speed rail station and Market East would become one of the busiest travel hubs in the Northeast Corridor.

That's getting a bit too far ahead. For now, no one in the city really knows what Amtrak's plans could mean for Market East, except that it probably means something good. "Nobody's given it much thought yet," says Greenberger, "other than we have a very definite point of view that any increase in the speed of the Northeast Corridor probably does the most good for the city of Philadelphia."

Top image: Flickr user lsc21 via creative commons

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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