Neighborhoods across Philadelphia are undergoing an unprecedented revitalization, and it takes unique kinds of collaboration to ensure that our communities have the amenities and services they deserve. We know this to be true because over the past several years, we—a community nonprofit, a private developer and SEPTA—have worked together with the City of Philadelphia to create a new vibrant public space and restaurant at 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue.
Trolley Portal Gardens, as the $4.5 million public/private project is known, is located where West Philadelphia’s iconic street level trolleys emerge from the tunnel to Center City. For the estimated 60,000 riders who pass through the Portal every day and the tens of thousands more who walk, bike and drive by, this gateway into West Philadelphia was a barren expanse of concrete. Community advocates and neighbors implored University City District, the special services district that serves a 2.4 square mile community in West Philadelphia, to improve the space.
While it was easy for the community to coalesce around a vision for transforming a bleak transit hub into a public park and neighborhood-oriented restaurant, it was not easy to turn the vision into a reality. The site is owned by the City and controlled by SEPTA, which uses the Portal as a staging ground for local tunnel repair work. More than 1,100 trolleys pass through the site every day, making the site a critical gateway and onsite construction a challenge.
In light of these challenges, we could have simply accepted the status quo. But collectively, the partners knew that this transit hub—and ones like it—are vital nodes in the community, and that creating a new amenity there would enhance the entire neighborhood.
Officially open to the public in fall of 2018, Trolley Portal Gardens features beautiful landscaping, ample seating, stormwater techniques that filter millions of gallons of rainwater that once ran off into the Schuylkill River, and a new community-oriented locally-owned restaurant. Trolley Car Station—sister restaurant to Trolley Car Diner in Mt. Airy and Trolley Car Café in East Falls—is now the eastern anchor of the Baltimore Avenue business corridor, where thousands of neighbors, commuters, university students, and employees from the nearby VA Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia converge. Green City Works, UCD’s landscaping social venture, maintains the space, ensuring that the neighborhood’s beautification is tied to growth and opportunity for local residents.
In an era of dwindling federal resources for urban development, Trolley Portal Gardens is a model of leveraging public assets to transform communities with minimal public cost. This $4.5 million project was made possible through a blend of philanthropic, public and private dollars. Private dollars entirely financed the restaurant, with philanthropic, state, city and community contributions funding the public space. While SEPTA bent over backwards to ensure the success of the project—keeping trolleys running during construction, dedicating an engineer for rapid problem-solving—the agency did not provide any of the construction funds.
Public, private and community leaders came together to make Trolley Portal Gardens the vibrant public amenity it is today. We think this kind of shared commitment is needed to continue making Philadelphia the city we all want it to be.
Matt Bergheiser is president of University City District; Jeff Knueppel is SEPTA’s General Manager; and Ken Weinstein is the owner of Trolley Car Station.