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Philly's Own Rail Park Officially Opens To Great Fanfare

Mayor Jim Kenney, Center City District CEO Paul Levy and other city leaders cut the grass ribbon to open the Philadelphia Rail Park

City leaders and a large crowd gathered Thursday to open a quarter-mile stretch of parkland considerably smaller than the Centennial Commons, which opened the day before to much smaller crowds.

All the added fanfare (including a saxophone quartet from the Philadelphia Pops playing literal fanfares) was because this little stretch of park is the first phase of the Philadelphia Rail Park, Philly's own answer to New York's transformative High Line that stretches from 11th and Callowhill streets to Noble and Broad.

"I can't overstate how important this park is to the Callowhill neighborhood and the city as a whole," Mayor Jim Kenney said to the gathered crowd.

Phase 1, which took 19 months and $11M to complete, is the first and smallest of the four sections that will make up the Rail Park at full build-out, when it will stretch 3 miles from Ninth Street to 27th Street along the former Reading Railroad track, which ceased operation in 1984. The next three phases will consist of above-ground, below-grade and underground sections named the Viaduct, the Cut and the Tunnel, respectively.

The assembled crowd in attendance for the opening of the Philadelphia Rail Park

To fund the first phase, the Rail Park received 297 donations of varying sizes, Center City District CEO Paul Levy said. Now it will serve as a proof of concept for the donations needed to complete the subsequent, larger phases.

Chief among those donors was the William Penn Foundation, which mostly funded the first feasibility study for the park in 2010. The first idea for the park arose in 2003, before New York's High Line had finished, out of what was then an advocacy group known as the Reading Viaduct Project, now known as Friends of the Rail Park.

Friends of the Rail Park will jointly manage the park, along with the Center City District and the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns the land after SEPTA donated it for city use.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaks at the grand opening of the Rail Park's first phase.

The completed part of the Rail Park sits squarely within the Callowhill neighborhood, or what some would call Chinatown North. It is in the midst of a sweeping revitalization under the stewardship of Arts & Crafts Holdings, by far the largest property owner in the area, which is marketing that part of the neighborhood as Spring Arts.

Though it boasts an eclectic mix of breweries, creative office space, concert venues and apartments, the neighborhood has no libraries, no rec center and had no park before Thursday, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said.

Increasing the number of public parks has been a pet project for Kenney through his Rebuild initiative. The Rail Park was not funded through that program, which is controversially funded by the mayor's soda tax, but city of Philadelphia Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis made the connection clear.

The first phase of the Philadelphia Rail Park on opening day

"I'm proud of the mayor for standing up to the soda companies, standing up to Harrisburg and saying, 'We're going to fund our parks and we're going to do it fairly and equitably,'" DeBerardinis said.

The excitement in the air was not over a fight for funding, but over the economic benefits everyone speaking at the event is hoping for, thanks to the explosive growth on Manhattan's West Side spurred by the High Line.

"This park will accelerate the growth of the neighborhood by attracting businesses," Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin said during his time at the podium. "Maybe even a big business that starts with an A."