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Old Posted Apr 3, 2009, 8:40 AM
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trails go regional

MICHAEL BRYANT / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Lower Merion's assistant planner Christopher Leswing, on the Manayunk bridge, has plans for a feeder trail to connect the township directly into Philadelphia's pathway system - a symbol of city-suburban cooperation.

from here:

Apr. 3, 2009

Changing Skyline: Making an urban link by bike path
By Inga Saffron

Inquirer Architecture Critic

Philadelphia and Lower Merion may be joined at the geographical hip, but much has kept them apart - a river, a highway, political preferences, money, and lifestyles. So could something as simple as a bike trail be the thing that brings them closer?

It's beginning to look that way. Captivated by the crowds that jam the recreation paths on Philadelphia's side of the Schuylkill, Lower Merion is readying plans for a feeder trail that will connect the township directly into the city's pathway system. The two-mile ramble will start at the Cynwyd train station and use Manayunk's iconic arched railroad bridge to take people across the river.

Of course, if you're badly in need of a cup of coffee right now, you can easily walk the trail to one of Manayunk's many outdoor cafes - assuming you don't mind stepping through a little mud and chunks of gravel.

The path neatly follows an old Pennsylvania Railroad coal road, cleared of its tracks years ago by SEPTA. When I made the trip with the township's assistant planner Christopher Leswing, we were passed on the Manayunk bridge by the Lower Merion High School track team, which already uses the Cynwyd trail to access Philadelphia's paths.

The crunch of gravel beneath their sneakers is the sound of barriers crashing down. Until Mayor Nutter crossed City Avenue last spring to talk up regional cooperation, it had been a decade since a Philadelphia leader reached out to its wealthy neighbor. His gesture paid off in October when Lower Merion joined several Philadelphia groups to form the Schuylkill River Park Alliance, which will coordinate the region's expanding trail network.

Even though Lower Merion already has raised the $1.5 million it needs to pave and landscape its trail, it supported the Alliance in sending a delegation last month to Washington to lobby the area's congressional representatives for funding. Instead of promoting pet plans, the Alliance packaged nine trail projects in a single $21 million proposal.

For the equivalent of a couple of AIG bonuses, the Alliance argues that it could fill in every missing link - a total of five miles - between Bartram's Garden in West Philadelphia and the Ivy Ridge station in Manayunk, creating a continuous, 14-mile paved trail, with feeders to Cynwyd and the Cobbs Creek Parkway trail. Incorporating the majestic Manayunk railroad bridge is not just a perfect reuse of the 92-year-old span - it's a terrific symbol of city-suburban cooperation.

Bike trails are clearly having their moment. Before the economic meltdown, the paths were viewed as a pleasant amenity. Now, they're seen as a way to create jobs, leverage development, and provide people with access to a forgotten landscape. They also offer an alternative to driving.

While it's unlikely that significant numbers will use the Cynwyd Trail to commute to work, Leswing says he can imagine Lower Merion residents walking or biking to Manayunk for dinner. At the Cynwyd end, the project has already spurred the renovation of the historic, 1890 train station, which will have a cafe and serve as a trail-head information center.

Meanwhile, O'Neill Properties has proposed a 600-unit apartment complex along the trail, on the site of the 17th-century Pencoyd Iron Works, one of many foundries and mills that once lined the Schuylkill. O'Neill's project hasn't been approved yet, and there are some serious questions about its design, but it could ultimately provide a model for waterfront development in Philadelphia, particularly on the Delaware River.

The township is offering to let O'Neill build more densely if the developer agrees to construct the portion of the trail that runs through its property - and keep it public. Future residents would be able to walk to Manayunk in minutes using another old railroad connection, the Blackie Bridge.

The other Alliance members also are hurrying to produce shovel-ready designs. The Schuylkill River Development Corp., which built the popular trail through Center City, expects to start work early next year on the DuPont Crescent, where the riverbank bumps out near Wharton Street in Grays Ferry.

Although the 3,600-foot section won't be immediately linked into the trail, it sets the stage for connections to the West Philadelphia side. In the meantime, the crescent will be lushly planted as a nature park for the neighborhood.

More problematic for the SRDC is the extension of the Schuylkill Banks from Locust Street to the South Street Bridge. Because the bank is so narrow, the SRDC determined that adding landfill would cost too much and take too long. Instead, it decided to build a 15-foot-wide floating boardwalk, which it hopes to finish in time for the bridge's reopening in late 2010.

The existing 12-foot path in Center City can get pretty crowded, but at least it has grassy shoulders to take the overflow. It's hard to imagine how a floating path - with no shoulders - will handle the growing traffic. SRDC's director, Joseph Syrnick, acknowledges the problem, but argues there is no affordable alternative. The boardwalk will have several overlooks where people can pull over if things get too jammed on the path.

It's not the only bottleneck along the 14-mile trail.

The Manayunk Development Corp. is looking to create a bypass at the Wissahickon Gateway, where the Kelly Drive path meets Ridge Avenue. The intersection is an important transfer point for SEPTA buses, and bicyclists and bus riders invariably clash. But the solution could require a new bridge over the creek, as well as the acquisition of private land along the river's edge.

Daunting as it sounds, the Alliance members remain bullish about raising federal funds to complete the nine missing links in the next few years. Syrnick goes even further: He predicts the Schuylkill River Trail will reach the Delaware River "before I leave this job." How long is that? "Give me five or six years," he says.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or
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