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Philly Announces Federal Planning Grant To Cap Vine Street Expressway, Reconnect Chinatown

As Philadelphia's Chinatown wrestles with an arena proposal some see as a threat to its future, the city is looking to address one of the neighborhood's biggest wounds from the past.

Interstate 676, otherwise known as the Vine Street Expressway, seen from the Broad Street overpass looking east in 2022

The city has launched Chinatown Stitch, a $4M engagement and planning process to envision how to cap Interstate 676, better known locally as the Vine Street Expressway, the Philadelphia Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability and the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. announced at a joint virtual press conference Wednesday. The roadway bifurcated Chinatown when it was built in the latter half of the 20th century.

Though OTIS won't be able to estimate the capping project's cost until the planning phase has progressed, Chinatown Stitch will focus on the two lanes of Vine Street, and the I-676 trench between them, from Broad Street on the west to Eighth Street on the east. All forms of development, from pure public space to dense urban development, are on the table for what can be built on top of a cap.

Chinatown Stitch has been awarded a $1.8M grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation's Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in late 2021. The remaining $2.2M comes from matching funds from the city itself, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and nonprofit sources led by the Knight Foundation, the announcement stated.

Though the federal grant has been awarded, negotiations are still ongoing for the final agreement, which the city hopes to reach before the end of the year, OTIS Director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives Christopher Puchalsky said during the press conference.

The Vine Street Expressway was announced in 1966, and Chinatown residents fought against it throughout its planning and construction, which completed in 1991, PCDC Executive Director John Chin said on the video call.

Attempts to undo or mitigate the damage caused by the highway trench have been ongoing ever since, including the replacement and expansion of several overpasses between 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from 2015 to 2019.

“For decades, we’ve lived with this, but now there’s a glimmer of hope that, for all the work we’ve done over the last 20 years, now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Chin said.

About three-quarters of the $4M funding pool will be spent on consulting and engineering for the design of the cap and associated development, with the bulk of the rest likely to be spent on equity concerns, Puchalsky said.

Though the dollar amounts pale in comparison to what will be required for any construction project, it still is by far the most money that has been budgeted to mitigating the effects of the Vine Street Expressway on Chinatown since 1991, Chin said.

A planning timeline presented by the Philadelphia Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability for the Chinatown Stitch project's pre-construction process

“There were several efforts to try to coalesce and express the community's needs in the past, but none of them led to construction," Puchalsky said. "So we're really focused on not just having this to be planning work for planning’s sake but to get to construction.”

The first phase of Chinatown Stitch, which began on Wednesday with the release of community surveys, will be to gather input on the community's desires and concerns for a capping project, with equity the top priority as dictated by both the city and USDOT's grant application. The city is providing funding until the grant is finalized, Puchalsky said.

The IIJA, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill, gave a five-year window for funding allocation, meaning OTIS likely needs to complete enough of the pre-construction phase to support an application for the much larger construction grant by late 2025, Puchalsky said. 

“One of our major motivating factors as we keep moving forward is to apply for funding in the last two years of the [bipartisan infrastructure] bill," he said on the call. "I know it seems like a long time, but sometimes you have to move at the speed of trust.”

To give the project its best possible chance at securing a construction grant, the city needs to present a single, coherent idea that has some level of buy-in from the community, Puchalsky said.

If an application is submitted by the end of 2025 and is approved before the bill expires in 2026, then a 2028 groundbreaking would be a realistic estimate, Puchalsky said — with a caveat.

“If we look at the capping project for I-95, it didn’t move that quickly,” he said.

That project, which will cap I-95 between Chestnut and Walnut streets with a new park on the Delaware River waterfront, is now scheduled to break ground this month, years after it secured funding, PennDOT said in a separate announcement on Wednesday.