Changing Skyline: Can Philadelphia's new planning chief be all things to all people?

Anne Fadullon has been both a lobbyist for the construction industry and an advocate for affordable housing.
Anne Fadullon has been both a lobbyist for the construction industry and an advocate for affordable housing. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 02, 2016

Jim Kenney ran for mayor as the great coalition-builder, bringing together a collection of the city's strangest bedfellows: New Philadelphians and the old. Bike-riding millennials and the building trade unions. Real estate developers mining the city for buildable lots and people unsettled by the explosion of new housing in their once-unchanging neighborhoods.

This week, Kenney pulled off a similar magic trick when he named a planning director who manages to appeal to all those groups.

Anne Fadullon, 52, who takes over the newly created Department of Planning and Development on Monday, has been a city planner, a real estate developer, an influential lobbyist for the construction industry, and an advocate for affordable housing. She has done stints at the Redevelopment Authority, which focuses on helping blighted neighborhoods, and the Dale Corp., a development company nestled in suburban Glenside. All the while, she has remained a darling of the city's Jane Jacobs-loving urbanists, serving on the boards of PlanPhilly and the Design Advocacy Group.

So it's no surprise her appointment was lauded by the folks who spend their days parsing zoning bonuses and planning guidelines. I checked in with a half-dozen people, representing the full spectrum of ideologies, and nearly all called Fadullon an inspired choice.

For Kenney, Fadullon's greatest strength is that she's practical. In our conversation, he made a point of noting she has a good relationship with Darrell L. Clarke, the powerful City Council president and the mastermind behind the recent reorganization of the city's development agencies.

Fadullon lobbied hard for Clarke's new flow chart, which puts the city's housing agencies and planning functions under one roof, and Clarke returned the favor this week by sending out a news release heaping praise on her. "She's one of the sharpest development professionals I know," Clarke wrote.

But can any planning chief really be all things to all people?

The reason given for creating the new department was that it would streamline the development process, making it faster and easier to build, thereby fostering the city's growth. The reconstituted department, which required a change in the City Charter, passed easily in a November ballot initiative.

Yet, even now, it's hard to fully understand why the reorganization was needed. Mayor Nutter was, if nothing else, consistently pro-development. He came into office promising to marry this business-friendly approach with high design standards and street-friendly urbanism.

He certainly did well with the growth part. Construction is booming like never before, and whole swaths of the city are being renewed. But despite some notable design victories under chief planner Alan Greenberger, such as the Divine Lorraine conversion project, the administration often struggled to get those go-go developers to do the right thing with urbanism and architecture.

During the last eight years, garage-fronted rowhouses were approved by the dozen. City planners gave Children's Hospital carte blanche to plop a car-oriented skyscraper on the popular Schuylkill Banks, next to a fragile rowhouse neighborhood. Civic associations continued to find themselves on the front lines of development battles, with minimal backup from city planners. When you consider the scale of the boom, there have been depressingly few works of architecture that can be considered memorable.

Fadullon told me in an interview she would like to focus more on street-level planning issues. "The Nutter administration often operated at the 50,000-foot level," by turning out big master plans, she said. "I want to look at the 10-foot level." She singled out the Schuylkill as an area badly in need of fine-grained planning to ensure that new development reinforces the links between the neighborhoods and waterfront amenities.

That's heartening. She has the background for such resident-centered planning, having started her career at a North Philadelphia housing nonprofit. She also spent three years in the late '90s running the planning department in Cocoa, Fla.

One reason Fadullon left Philadelphia is that she had grown weary of being in a stagnant Rust Belt city. "In Philadelphia, it was all about managing decline," she explained. "I went to Florida because it was growing. There were astronomical numbers of people moving in. I wanted to be in a growth environment."

So, expect Fadullon to be just as pro-development as the Nutter administration. She is probably best known in Philadelphia for her two years at the helm of the Building Industry Association.

The organization led the fight to overhaul the zoning code, which helped unleash the building boom we're seeing now. She wants to fast-track the second phase, which involves updating all the zoning maps, making it even easier to build without variances and community review. The danger is the faster process could be devastating for neighborhoods without a commitment to good design standards.

Helping private developers isn't Fadullon's only goal, however. She is expected to shift the Planning Department's focus to affordable housing in an effort to counter gentrification. That was one of the big reasons for combining housing and planning in one super-department. It happens to be a cause close to Fadullon's heart. Not only did she work on many subsidized housing projects at Dale Corp.; her partner, Nora Lichtash, runs the Women's Community Revitalization Project, which provides housing for low-income women.

But building subsidized housing - which would sell for around $200,000 - is tough in a city with strong unions, high wage rates, and convoluted work rules. Construction unions are one of Kenney's main constituencies, and Fadullon stayed on the sidelines of the Goldtex union fight during her tenure at the building association. Nutter, to his credit, managed to add a hefty 3,991 units of affordable housing at a time when the economy was tanking and federal funding was being slashed.

Though Fadullon acknowledges the challenges, she argues that her experience working for a private developer taught her how to craft creative funding strategies.

She's also convinced the city can have it both ways: growth and good design. "The city is in a better position than ever," she said. "We're at a point where we can say it's a privilege to be in Philadelphia. . . . We need to get into that mind-set."

That's a good thing, because Fadullon has a lot of people she has to make happy.

ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213

@ingasaffron

www.philly.com/saffron

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