Changing Skyline: A small-scale vision of Philadelphia's future

A view of the city's Delaware River waterfront. The new plan, "Philadelphia 2035," fails to address the issue of I-95, which cuts off Center City from the historic waterfront area.
A view of the city's Delaware River waterfront. The new plan, "Philadelphia 2035," fails to address the issue of I-95, which cuts off Center City from the historic waterfront area. (JONATHAN WILSON / File Photograph)
Posted: June 10, 2011

In 1960, Philadelphia peered into a crystal ball and tried to divine how the city would look 25 years in the future. The exercise in clairvoyance produced the city's first Comprehensive Plan, an amazing, 375-page document that showed the rough outlines of what would become Penn Center, Market East Station, and the revitalized Society Hill neighborhood.

City planners also misread some key signs. They were way off in their prediction that the city's population would balloon to 2.5 million by 1986. And when they designated land for a new waterfront neighborhood called Penn's Landing, they neglected to recognize that a certain planned interstate highway would fatally wall off the site. Still, if planners had not pursued a few transformative ideas, such as the tunnel projects that paved the way for a single, unified transit system called SEPTA, Philadelphia probably would not count itself today among the nation's survivor cities.

We are once again living in a time of pulse-quickening civic visions, thanks both to Mayor Nutter, who has made good on his campaign pledge to untie the hands of city planners, and the William Penn Foundation, which has picked up the tab for many of the studies. The planning frenzy is a huge turnaround from the Rendell and Street years. It now feels as if a new report comes out every month.

Tuesday, it was the "Philadelphia 2035" vision plan. Modeled on the 1960 Comprehensive Plan, it marks the first time in half a century that Philadelphia's Planning Commission has taken time to sort out its long-range priorities and identify projects key to its future. The 2035 plan will inform every major decision the city makes in the next 25 years, whatever the inclinations of the mayor who succeeds Nutter.

Thinner in bulk than the original - 227 pages - the new comp plan also is pared down in ambition. City planners seem to have taken the opposite tack from that advocated by the great Chicago planner Daniel Burnham, who exhorted his city to "make no little plans. They have no power to stir men's blood."

The 2035 report is a collection of little plans, many of them terrific, but small-scale nonetheless. The future Philadelphia that appears in the planners' crystal ball is a place where people bike to work, shop at neighborhood farmer's markets, dine at the corner brewpub, tap at laptops in the park at the end of the block, and regularly compost their food waste. It sounds like a shinier version of today's Philadelphia, one without the poverty and blight.

In part, the city is being realistic. Even as it undertakes more planning, Philadelphia has less money than ever to implement grand schemes. The 1960 comp plan appeared at a moment when the federal government was raining money on cities through its urban-renewal and highway programs. These days, it's not clear that the Community Development Block Grant program, one of the last pots of federal money for urban projects, can survive. Just to implement the city's list of little ideas would cost an estimated $43 billion.

So, if you're looking for paradigm-shifting infrastructure projects, you'll find essentially three biggies: There's a third airport runway to help Philadelphia compete in a global economy, a light-rail line along Roosevelt Boulevard to tie the Northeast and its growing immigrant population into the downtown economy, and an extension of the Broad Street subway to knit the Navy Yard more fully into the city's core. For the record, the Roosevelt Boulevard transit line was first proposed in the 1960 plan. The service is needed even more today.

The plan does include other public works, it's just that they're mostly patched together from ongoing projects. Significantly, the plan formally endorses the continued development of the city's two waterfronts for housing and recreation, as well as a recent plan to turn vacant lots into small neighborhood parks. The big news is that the city goes on record as backing an elevated park on the Reading Viaduct, something it's been cagey about before.

What's captured public attention is the plan's population forecast. City planners, who are still celebrating census results showing the first population increase in 50 years - an additional 8,500 residents - are boldly predicting 100,000 new Philadelphians by 2035. Can the city that only just stopped the human hemorrhaging really attract 4,000 new residents every year for 25 years?

Planners arrived at the 100,000 number after averaging the best- and worst-case scenarios from a variety of demographers. Planning Director Gary Jastrzab acknowledges the number "is aspirational," but not unreasonable, especially because he believes the census bureau underestimated Philadelphia's gains in 2010. The real growth in the last decade is closer to 60,000, he says.

Greg Heller, a planner who now manages projects for West Philadelphia's Enterprise Center, agrees the city is on the cusp of major resurgence. Yet he's worried that huge inflows of educated workers at Philadelphia's fast-growing hospitals and universities will drive up rents and make the city less affordable. "The pace of gentrification is staggering," he argues.

Considering that the 2035 plan identifies 4,000 acres of vacant land, containing 40,000 vacant buildings, it's hard to believe there is a looming affordability crisis. The problem, Heller explains, is that the city's property-tax structure makes it easy for landlords to sit on vacant property while they wait for the right moment to cash in.

The 2035 plan talks vaguely about changing that structure by instituting a land tax that would discourage speculation. The plan also advocates the creation of a single agency to manage Philadelphia's huge holdings of vacant property. Right now, five manage the real estate portfolio, mostly badly.

Unlike the 1960 plan, which envisioned a noose of highways around Center City, the 2035 plan foresees a future built on mass transit. The plan, prepared in tandem with a new zoning code, encourages higher densities around transit stops. Wayne Junction is singled out as a major hub that would lift the nearby Germantown and Nicetown neighborhoods out of their torpor.

But there's one highway the city should be thinking about, and that's I-95. The portion that runs through Center City, and cuts off downtown from the historic waterfront, is due for a scheduled overhaul by the federal government. OK, work is supposed to start in 2047, but engineering will begin in 2020. The city should be making a bid now to have it rebuilt better. Instead, the new plan says not a word on the subject.

Planners were clearly afraid of proposing a hugely expensive project like Boston's Big Ditch to cover I-95's open trench. But there are plenty of other options, such as narrowing the width of the grand canyon. And since it's an interstate, Washington is paying.

The future will be here before you know it.


Changing Skyline:

To see the master plan's promotional video, go to www.philly.com/

masterplan


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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