March 08, 2023
Neighborhood leaders and Philadelphia officials are exploring the idea of building a cap over a portion of the Vine Street Expressway in Chinatown, the busy, east-west, interstate highway carved through the city that also slices that neighborhood in two.
The Chinatown Stitch project would build on years of efforts by residents in the neighborhood to reimagine the expressway, which was built below ground level and faced staunch opposition during its planning phase and eventual construction in the 1980s. On Wednesday, city officials and leaders from the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. said $4 million had been obtained to fund the planning phase of the project.
A cap over I-676 could be in the form of a bridge, platform or another structure. It would create the potential to develop parks, commercial space and residential projects. The complexity and costs involved often make such projects difficult to fund and execute, but the plan to build an 11.5-acre park over I-95 at Penn's Landing in the coming years has fostered new optimism about doing something similar with the Vine Street Expressway.
The 1.75-mile highway cuts a trench through Chinatown between Ninth and 12th streets, which its critics say hinders access to the neighborhood north of Vine Street. Like many of the freeways built in the U.S. after World War II, the Vine Street Expressway caused residential displacement and long-term quality of life concerns. Chinatown residents have lived with noise and air pollution, dangers to pedestrians on the highway's busy feeder streets, and a lack of accessible, outdoor public spaces.
Of the $4 million in funding for the planning phase of Chinatown Stitch, $1.8 million comes from a grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Reconnecting Communities program. The city, PennDOT, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and several private donors are contributing $2.2 million.
"After more than three decades of harm and displacement caused by the Vine Street Expressway, the Reconnecting Communities grant is a beacon of hope for the Chinatown community," John Chin, executive director for Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said Wednesday. "The funding from this grant will provide concrete change for Chinatown's built environment, allowing for businesses, residents and future generations of our marginalized community to flourish."
The initial phase of the project will look at alternatives for reconnecting Chinatown at various locations, said Mike Carroll, Philadelphia's deputy managing director for transportation. In the second phase, designs for different uses of capped portions of I-676 will be presented to the community to determine the preferred approach.
The first public meeting about the project is scheduled for April 26, with additional pop-up events to follow in the spring and summer. The schedule of events will be updated on the city's Chinatown Stitch project website.
Depending on the details and cost of the plan chosen by the community, construction could begin as soon as 2028, officials said.
The Chinatown Stitch announcement comes as the Philadelphia 76ers pursue building a new arena on Market Street, between 10th and 11th streets, at the southern edge of Chinatown. The team's $1.3 billion, privately funded plan provoked backlash among residents when it was unveiled last summer and spurred the creation of the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena this winter.
The neighborhood previously has fought off plans to build a federal prison, a Phillies stadium and a casino. But the construction of the Vine Street Expressway remains a crucial turning point in Chinatown's history, one that has reshaped its environmental, social and economic landscape.
A prominent example of a highway capping project is the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. The 17-mile linear park stretches between that city's Chinatown neighborhood through the Financial District, waterfront, and North End. Construction on the Big Dig began in 1991 to tunnel the city's Central Artery, which was formerly an elevated highway, and the greenway project officially opened in 2008. Massachusetts officials estimated the Big Dig cost about $24.3 billion dollars. The Greenway portion of the project cost $40 million, according to a federal profile of the project.
The plan to cap I-95 and build the new park at Penn's Landing is estimated to cost $328.9 million.
Funding the construction of a cap over the Vine Street Expressway would be among the issues addressed during the initial phase of Chinatown Stitch.
Civic organizations can request a presentation by the Chinatown Stitch project team by emailing OTIS@phila.gov.