SEPTA seeks tenants for five train stations

by Tom Beck
Posted 2/14/24

Seeking to turn five boarded-up stations in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy into businesses, SEPTA plans to issue a request for proposals this week.

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SEPTA seeks tenants for five train stations


Seeking to turn five of its boarded-up train stations in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy into working businesses that serve and support their neighboring communities, SEPTA plans to issue a request for proposals this week to developers who are interested in reimagining how the historic structures could be used. 

The one station available for lease in Chestnut Hill is Gravers, which is on the Chestnut Hill East line. The rest, which are in Mt. Airy and Germantown, include Carpenter, Tulpehocken and Upsal on the Chestnut Hill West line and Mt. Airy, which is also on the Chestnut Hill East line. 

All five are listed on the city’s Register of Historic Places. Mt. Airy and Gravers stations were both designed by Frank Furness, the most important architect of the Philadelphia industrial age. Carpenter, Upsal and Tulpehocken, like all stations on the Chestnut Hill West line, were designed by architects William Brown and William Bleddyn Powell.

SEPTA’s pending RFP is a welcome move for residents who’ve long wondered why such charming spaces have been left fallow for so long. They also wonder how tenants could affect the cash-strapped agency, and its potential closure of one or even both of the lines. 

“These stations should not be allowed to sit vacant,” said John Conlow, a member of the Southwest Mt. Airy Neighborhood Planning Cooperative. “They’re historic structures, and they need to be maintained to serve their communities even if they’re not used as waiting rooms or ticket rooms anymore.”

Anne Dicker, part of a coalition of local civic groups called Save the Train, which is working to prevent the Chestnut Hill West line from being cut amid a $240 million SEPTA funding shortfall, said she thinks putting the five train stations back into active commercial use could help.

“I think turning these into coffee shops and community areas is a way to get more people riding the train,” she said. 

Each two-story station has commercial space on the ground floor, and second-floor space that could be used as a residence. 

The transit agency recently closed 14 of its ticket offices, including St. Martins, Mt. Airy, Carpenter and Chestnut Hill East, due to low sales. At the time of their closures, less than 20 transactions were being processed at each station per week – something agency spokesperson Andrew Busch said was due to an increase in the use of online, or “contactless” payment. 

SEPTA previously tried to attract developer interest through short-term leases, but those efforts were unsuccessful in part, Busch said, “due to the historic nature of the buildings and the costs associated with renovating them in accordance with historic standards.”

This time around, however, the transit agency is pursuing long-term leases for each station, which it hopes will be more enticing. The longer lease, Busch said, will make it easier for private developers to recoup their investment. The leases will also help alleviate SEPTA’s maintenance and operating costs for the stations.

Currently, the transit agency leases just one of its Northwest Philadelphia Regional Rail stations – Richard Allen Lane station – where coffee shop High Point Cafe operates on the ground level. 

High Point is “a perfect example” of what neighborhood stakeholders envision at each of the five stations,” said Suzanne Ponsen, president of West Central Germantown Neighbors and a member of Save the Train, adding that the cafe is “marvelous and gets tons of business.”

Neighbors hope to see each station become a similar place for the community to gather, said East Mt. Airy Neighbors president Linda Bell. 

“They have flea markets and a whole lot of stuff going on at Richard Allen Lane,” she said. “That’s what I would like to see. I want neighbors to have a place to gather and get to know each other.”

The lease for Richard Allen Lane is owned by Mt. Airy developer Ken Weinstein, who told The Local that he renovated the station 22 years ago before installing High Point as a tenant.

“Before we renovated it, it was a blighted station,” he said. “It was attracting graffiti and crime.”

Weinstein said he’s interested in acquiring the lease for the five new stations.

“These stations are key to improving our community in Northwest Philly,” he said. “They’ve been vacant for too long, and we’re interested in changing that.”

Chronic funding problems

With its pandemic funding set to expire at the end of June and ridership yet to recover after COVID shutdowns, SEPTA’s current funding crisis has prompted Gov. Josh Shapiro to call for $283 million in increased funding for public transportation in the next state budget, $185 million of which would go to SEPTA. The new fiscal year starts in June.

Transit activists in Philadelphia and across the state were hoping that the budget passed last year would make up that difference. But after a months-long stalemate, the budget, which passed in December, did not include that funding. 

Northwest residents have responded with a growing grassroots effort to garner support for the regional rail line, creating a network of neighborhood civic groups to organize rallies, circulate a petition and encourage voters to reach out to their elected representatives.  

Their first rally on Jan. 28 at Richard Allen Lane station drew several hundred people, and two more are scheduled for Feb. 14 at Tulpehocken Station and Feb. 24 at Chelten Station at 9:30 a.m. 

Dicker said it was “heartening to hear that SEPTA does have plans for our beautiful stations.”

SEPTA “doesn’t really want to cut the Chestnut Hill West line, but will be forced to” if it doesn’t get the funding,” she said.