Philly Rail Park launches equitable development plan

On a cold Monday morning, Yihua Liu sat on a bench with a friend at the Rail Park. Now a student at Drexel, he’s lived his whole life in Chinatown, and he’s noticed the neighborhood changing.

When he was younger, Liu often saw a particular farmer who sold the produce from his red truck. The neighborhood women “loved him,” Liu recalls, because he sold him for a very high price.

“And, now, I haven’t seen this guy,” Liu said.

Not all changes are bad, the 19-year-old said. He likes how the edges of the neighborhood look “newer” and “cleaner”. The first phase of Rail Park, an $11 million public park built on an abandoned elevated railroad and widely expected to catalyze a development frenzy, opened when Liu was in high school. It cut through linear park inspired by New York’s chic High Line as a shortcut to school.

But Liu hopes the neighborhood won’t change too much. He fears that if big business pushes local Chinese-owned businesses away, it will drive out residents as well.

“I want Chinatown to stay as it is, to preserve… the culture,” he said. “That’s why my parents love being in Chinatown because whatever they need they always have.”

Philadelphia’s Chinatown began to change before the Rail Park was planned, says Yue Wu, neighborhood and project planning manager at the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. But since the opening of the first phase over Chinatown North and the Callowhill district in 2018, this change has not slowed down.

“We’re seeing a lot of loft development happening from Broad Street towards this neighborhood,” Wu said. “There’s more condo development, higher income people moving into condos.”

9th and Callowhill Streets in the northern district of Chinatown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A 2020 study prepared by consultancy Strategic Economics for the Chinatown CDC found that since Friends of the Rail Park – the polished nonprofit that continues to raise funds to make the 3-Mile Park vision a reality – formed in 2013, the sale prices of apartments buildings near the first phase of the park have grown faster than in the rest of the city. The authors estimated that up to 16% of this increase could be attributable to the rail fleet and projected that the equipment could generate more than $2 million in additional property tax revenue for the city per year.

Evidence of change can be seen all around the first completed section of the Rail Park. On Wood Street, a closed tofu factory where the owner hopes to build multi-family housing with a roof terrace sits next to a four-story apartment building still under construction. A few blocks north on Callowhill Street, workers drive in and out of an open 988 Trading Company garage door, loading bags of onions and boxes of chicken onto trucks. It’s an example of the light industry that has traditionally filled this part of Chinatown – food factories, wholesalers and signs that support nearby restaurants. Next to 988 Trading Company stands a new gray box of a building that houses a climbing gym — an example, Wu said, of amenities that have sprung up to serve new residents in the neighborhood.

“Currently, if you just look at the neighborhood … you can probably see a diverse mix of businesses and mixed-income population,” she said. “As an urban planning professional, you might think that’s a good thing — it’s good for the neighborhood to have diversity. But will it last?”

The area north of Chinatown, sometimes called the Callowhill district, was once a thriving industrial area. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)p

Without intervention now, Wu said, more high-income residents could move into the neighborhood, impacting that diversity.

“So the question is, diversity is good, and we want to have diversity in the neighborhood, and how can we help vulnerable people, like low-income and immigrant families and businesses, how can we help them to stay so that we can preserve this diversity?

Answers to that question could emerge from a planning process that Friends of the Rail Park is embarking on, funded in part by a new grant from the state’s Keystone Communities program, announced late last month.

Friends of the Rail Park has attempted to counter the cultural displacement that can accompany gentrification by co-hosting events such as Mahjong nights, plant swaps, seniors hour – aimed at low-income, low-skilled seniors of the English language – said Friends of the Rail Park Director Rebecca Cordes Chan. But the new Equitable Development Plan will explore ways in which the rail fleet can counter the economic and physical displacement that comes with gentrification, as it plans to expand the park from Poplar to Brewerytown.

“We have to think about who benefits from this investment? Who pays and who decides on the distribution of this investment in the districts? Chan said.

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