We’ve come a long way, Philly

Posted: May 08, 2012

It can be hard to remember that just 10 years ago, Philadelphia’s planning and development were controlled by backroom deal-makers.

The City Planning Commission was a marginalized shadow of its former self. The public was kept out of discussions about development. Zoning was vexed by an antiquated code and the scourge of councilmanic prerogative. Community groups were on the front lines in battles between neighborhoods and developers. And the Zoning Board of Adjustment was the arbiter of architectural taste.

Penn’s Landing was a poster child for the perils of development by fiat. Long viewed as the key to revitalization of the Delaware River waterfront, the area saw a series of bloated development proposals that sank under their own weight. A city councilman and a Penn’s Landing Corp. board member were convicted of extortion linked to riverside development. And the pylons of the ill-fated tram to nowhere still mark the terminus of one failed waterfront project.

Today, however, the city’s master plan for the waterfront has received national awards. Philadelphia is seen as a model in planning circles, and progressive ideas are shaping its development policy.

Among the major changes of the past decade:

The City Planning Commission has been restored as a serious forum for conversations about urban design and economic development.

The city recently completed its first comprehensive plan since 1960, and the Planning Commission is preparing 18 district-level plans.

A Citizens Planning Institute has been established to educate and empower the city’s residents to take a more active role in planning their communities.

The city has a new zoning code for the first time since 1962, which will ensure that development is consistent with current land use and settlement patterns, not political whims.

The city Parks and Recreation Department has completed Green2015, a plan to create 500 acres of new park space by 2015.

The city’s central Delaware River waterfront has a new master plan grounded in civic values and urban design excellence.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corp., an open, transparent waterfront management agency, has replaced the disgraced Penn’s Landing Corp.

Attitude adjustment

The list could go on, but the point is that Philadelphians have once again begun to take pride in our built environment as a reflection of our civic identity. We’re not carrying that famous Philadelphia chip on our shoulder or hiding behind the misguided mantra that any development is good development.

The city’s demographics bear this out: Not only did we see the first increase in population in 50 years in the 2010 census, adding a little more than 8,000 Philadelphians, but we also gained more than 10,000 in the last two years alone.

How did a city long known for being “corrupt and contented” change course so swiftly? Population shifts and a change in American attitudes toward cities have certainly played a part. So did the election of Michael Nutter, who has professionalized the Mayor’s Office and brought strong civic values to his administration.

Fresh ideas

PennPraxis, an arm of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design that seeks to put research into practice, is proud to have played a part in this transformation, too. Following the 2002 collapse of a Simon Property Group plan to build an entertainment complex at Penn’s Landing, PennPraxis worked with the Editorial Board of The Inquirer and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement to convene the Penn’s Landing Forums and take a fresh look at the waterfront. We encouraged Philadelphians to develop principles for a great waterfront without copying and pasting stale ideas from other cities.

In 2006, the city and the William Penn Foundation asked PennPraxis to lead a public planning process for six miles of the central Delaware River waterfront. Again, PennPraxis and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement convened a series of public forums that engaged more than 4,000 Philadelphians in shaping a vision for the waterfront. The resulting “Civic Vision for the Central Delaware” undergirds the recently adopted master plan for the central Delaware, ensuring that civic values are at the heart of waterfront development. And PlanPhilly, a website that grew out of the waterfront planning process, has become a trusted source of news about planning and development.

PennPraxis turned 10 this year, and we’re proud that some of the processes we and our partners pioneered have become standard operating procedure. We would love to know what you think we should work on over the course of the next decade.

Harris Steinberg is the executive director of PennPraxis, which is celebrating its 10th birthday with an event scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday at Penn. Expected guests include Alex Krieger of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, former Toronto urban design and architecture director Ken Greenberg, and Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron. The event is free and open to the public. To sign up, go to www.design.upenn.edu/pennpraxis/pennpraxis-10.

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