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Proposed bike trail would cross Schuylkill, access Bartram's Garden (Phila Inquirer)

Miriam Hill, Inquirer Staff Writer
POSTED: Monday, November 19, 2012, 3:01 AM

From the Schuylkill's west bank, Bartram's Garden offers evocative views of Philadelphia in all its glory and grit.

Standing in scruffy grass at the water's edge, you can see Center City skyscrapers stretch toward the clouds, while farther south, massive oil-storage tanks loom like metallic moons.

Not many people get to see the city this way, but that may be about to change.

Mayor Nutter and Parks Department officials are proposing a 1.1-mile trail to be known as Bartram's Mile that would link the east side of the river to the west and continue on that side of the Schuylkill.

Planning for Bartram's Mile is in the early stages, but Nutter hopes to finish the project before the end of his second term as part of a larger strategy to bequeath Philadelphia 500 new acres of green space during his tenure.

"We know this from the Delaware River, we certainly know this from the upper Schuylkill, that people want to be near the water. They want that access," Nutter said in an interview.

Bartram's Mile would be a short but crucial link in the region's expanding network of bicycle trails. The popular Schuylkill Banks trail must leap the river to the west side to get to Bartram's Garden and eventually Fort Mifflin.

The hope is that engineers will be able to raise and turn a disused railroad swing bridge so boats can still pass under it while cyclists cross it from Grays Ferry Crescent, a new park on the east side of the river.

"The bridge is a beautiful piece of architecture," Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis said. "People are going to love it."

It's also possible to cross the river via the Grays Ferry Bridge, but the high speeds there could deter many cyclists.

Bartram's Mile came together as Parks and Recreation officials were looking for new green space for Philadelphia.

The trail would pick up south of the Grays Ferry Bridge and wind through sites owned by the city, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC), and railroad giant CSX Corp.

Some of the land requires environmental cleanup. People use other parts as an illegal dumping ground. The Streets Department has facilities along sections of the proposed trail but may move, and the rest of it is a mix of barren streets and green riverfront property with those compelling views.

Parks advocates hope Bartram's Mile also will accelerate a plan to extend Philadelphia's biking and walking paths south to Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River, and jump-start the redevelopment of West Philadelphia as a commercial and industrial hub.

Bartram's Mile also would bring more people to Bartram's Garden, a part of Fairmount Park that once was the historic home of American botanist John Bartram, whose fame grew as he collected specimens of seeds and plants and traded them with people here and in Europe. The garden is bursting with information about not just plants, but the city and country's early history.

But navigating the web of streets in West and Southwest Philadelphia to get to the garden is a challenge. The trail offers a simple route, with the potential for people to stumble upon the garden while out for a ride.

"The river has played a huge role in shaping John Bartram's life and the garden itself, and I think this is, in some ways, a wonderful way to reengage with the river and reestablish that historic land/water connection," said Maitreyi Roy, the garden's executive director.

Nutter plans to use money from the city's capital budget and to attract private and philanthropic dollars.

PIDC, the city's quasi-governmental economic- and industrial-development arm, hopes Bartram's Mile will jump-start plans to lure research firms and light industry to the six miles along the river's banks, from University City to Philadelphia International Airport.

"It is about economics. You green and clean a place, and you will increase economic vitality," Nutter said.

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