River Planning Picks Up Steam

Participants in the December 4th Advisory Group meeting for the PennPraxis-led Delaware Riverfront plan covered a range of topics, noting first a citywide parallel effort to engage the citizenry in growth and planning issues through a series of “Great City” forums. If the meetings of the Central Delaware planning initiative’s Advisory Group are a microcosm of what Philadelphia can expect from a larger civic conversaton, then the process is well begun, although, as Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) director Janice Woodcock pointed out, “having a conversation like this is never going to be completely smooth. The whole idea is to give us a basis to make better decisions in the future.”

PennPraxis director Harris Steinberg reviewed some of the group’s activities in the past weeks, starting with the topic most on Philadelphian’s minds, traffic. Woodcock and Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), said Steinberg, are working on “a quick but thoughtful traffic analysis of existing conditions along Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard from Oregon to Girard, around proposed developments that have the likelihood of happening, and on top of that, will layer on the casinos. So that on December 20th, once the announcements are made, we’ll have a good sense of the impact of traffic up and down the strip, and on December 21st, we’ll be able to not only release the analysis, but also paint the word pictures as to what this actually means. By that I mean, is it going to look like King of Prussia mall on December 24th every day? What’s the reality we’re expecting? And then we can put forth solutions, because I think the benefit of this group is not just to raise the flag but also to begin to help solve problems.”

Steinberg also announced that the project had engaged Sam Schwartz, a leading traffic engineer to start figuring out how to manage traffic issues. Schwartz, nicknamed ‘Gridlock Sam’, was New York’s Deputy Mayor for Transportation and consults cities nationwide on traffic issues (read more about Schwartz).

The meeting was at times raucous. When Steinberg characterized the process involved in selecting community association delegates to the Steering Committee as going “smoothly”, Pennsport community activist Ed Kirlin interjected, “It did not go smoothly!” Steinberg finished his statement, acknowledging that it went smoothly with the exception of the South Philly civic associations, who had trouble arriving at a compromise about their delegate to the Steering Committee. Though not smooth, the question has since been resolved.

Steinberg and members of the Advisory Group described their trip to New York to see what solutions implemented there might work for Philadelphia. Steinberg described the work of the New York City Planning Commission (NYCPC) under executive director Amanda Burden to “not only rezone 5000 blocks in New York, but to put forth an agenda of excellence that the Bloomberg administration is known for” as “truly inspiring”.

Robert Greenbaum of Society Hill Towers, was impressed by the “planning and forethought” that went into the areas they looked at in New York, as well as the long-term dedication of not only planning professionals, but community stakeholders. “One of the most important lessons we could use here is the way the Hudson River Park handled the transition over the West Side Highway, which is a four or six lane major thoroughfare. One of the problems we face on our waterfront is a separation by 95 and Christopher Columbus Boulevard, and it seems like New York has been able to accomplish that transition and made it possible for people to access the park,” he said.

Barry Seymour is a former Director of Waterfront Planning for the NYCPC. He spoke about New York City’s process over the past twenty years. It began with a small group within the Planning Commission. “What we had was a set of adopted policies that actually came out of the State Coastal Management Program,” he said, which became the basis for review of projects. The state provided funding to implement the guidelines at a local level. “Simple policies like promoting public access, supporting water-dependent development, maintaining view corridors. Not a detailed plan, but a pretty simple set of policies,” said Seymour. The NYCPC had a review procedure already in place to evaluate most proposed projects. They used the coastal policies to advocate for changes in building designs; after several small successes, the momentum for the policies grew. It took a decade before those few principles became design guidelines, and another decade before they were fully accepted by the city administration.

Advisory Group members seemed to think the Greenpoint-Williamsburg plan implemented in New York most closely matched Philadelphia’s situation, and offered many instructive solutions. Steinberg hopes to schedule a presentation of that plan for a local audience. Jennifer Lewis of Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association pointed out that the situation for New York differed significantly from Philadelphia’s since so much of their waterfront land was already public. She suggested it was possible, though, to set up a plan with codes that imposed things like public easements and park connections going forward.

Steinberg, acknowledging this difference, said, “We are not going to make this waterfront from whole cloth, we know that. There are many existing uses. The ownership issues are on the ground, there’s very few currently public pieces of land. The Penn’s Landing Corporation has a few of them, but many of them are under long-term leases as well. So how to begin to, out of this civic conversation, develop the principles that balance the public good and private development is our challenge.” He also said there was “nothing in New York that we could or should copy precisely, though there were lots of lessons to be learned.” He said that Philadelphia was going to have to come up with its own solutions, which would be hard work. Just as important as the plan itself is a way to implement it.  “How we get there, how we put in place the team, the players, the funding mechanisms, and the civic infrastructure to make this happen over the next years is absolutely vital to the success of this effort,” he said.

Steinberg spoke of the role of the development community in building the public realm, “the great stage of civic life- the streets and public spaces” and the importance of quality design because “the character and quality of those spaces are what the development community in New York ultimately understood would increase the value of their properties. That’s in many cases the message we’re hoping this process will convey: that a well-designed and a well-maintained public realm increases the values of properties around it, and it’s really a joint effort moving forward.”

At one point, community activist Jethro Heiko of Casino Free Philadelphia said, “I really want to question whether riparian rights are public or not. I don’t have a good answer for that. If riparian rights land is public land, then we have a lot of public land to play with, if we really start treating it as public. Which we haven’t been doing in the city.”

Representative Bill Keller said, “In all of this, I haven’t heard mention of the industrial waterfront.” Steinberg said that the plan had every intention of balancing industrial with other needs, and that it had been brought to his attention that many families rely upon the river for their livelihoods. Representatives of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) voiced concern not only that their interests would be ignored, but that they hadn’t been aware of the process of the waterfront development initiative. They were dismayed their organization was not represented in the composition of the Advisory Group, though the mayor’s Executive Order was explicit on the structure of the board. Steinberg stressed not only the open nature of all meetings in this process, but also the fact that final approval of any plan does not rest within either the Advisory Group or the Steering Committee, but will be heavily informed by their process. “It’s not about people being included or excluded, it’s about reaching out, and all of us working to make this happen,” he said.

Heiko echoed the concerns expressed by the longshoremen, advocating that the families whose livelihoods are impacted by waterfront development, not only at the Port, but also further north on the river, be considered. “The river wards have always been a place where people work and live. I’d like to do a survey of how many people are working in these areas, because there are competing interests that could be contradictory. You put up a large condominium project next to a meat-packing plant, most likely those jobs will be lost. Maybe not in the first year, but in five or ten years. It’s similar with the Port. So we really have to consider the long-term implications of land use. And that includes casinos.”

ILA vice president James Paylor, Jr. said, “All the waterfront sites that used to be industrial sites, that now have Lowes and Home Depot, they were family-sustaining job areas. That is spreading and we’re being reduced, so if we sound a little sensitive, we were brought into the game a little late.”

Steinberg promised to meet separately with union representatives to listen to their concerns in greater depth, but also urged them to connect themselves with the process. “All of us have a role to play including those at this table as well as those in this city, to not only seek out information but to have conversations. So, the Advisory Group’s role is to disseminate information within their communities and the role of the citizens of the city is to find out information. Nobody’s passive here. It’s a moving train, there’re lots of parts and pieces that all of us are working on simultaneously. There’s a website, www.planphilly.com, that will have continually updated information about this process. Sign up for the email updates so you and the people you represent are in the loop.”

Woodcock said, “We have an understanding that there’s a lot of competing land interests for different kinds of land, especially vacant land in an urban setting. That is a precious resource that we have. We are reaching out to different levels of government to find out what’s in place to figure that out, and welcome any information that you can give us on who else we should be speaking with. We’re not going about it by such a public process as this, it’s more like a research effort.”

Ed Kirlin of Pennsport expressed frustration with the pace of the project, saying that his civic association felt they were always playing ‘catch up’ to stay informed. Despite Advisory Group input into setting the dates for the upcoming value session forums, Kirlin said that December meetings for his community would be difficult. “Our entire community is tied up in the casino fight right now and getting ready for the Mummer’s Parade and the holidays. I just want to know why you’re going so fast? There’s questions in the community about why you’re moving so fast, what the plan is, how it interacts with zoning and casinos.”

Steinberg said the timetable had been established by the executive order. He promised to meet separately with the Pennsport Civic Association to hear their concerns. He also promised support for the outreach efforts of the civic groups.

The casino proposals have been fast-tracked all along by the state and the city. That timetable, in large part, has also influenced the schedule of the planning initiative. Mary Isaacson, from Representative Mike O’Brien’s office was concerned the casino issue could dominate the upcoming forums. Steinberg reiterated that PennPraxis is “agnostic” on casinos. Shawn Rairigh, of Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront (NABR) suggested Steinberg and the Planning Commission lobby the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) for updated traffic reports and other information that would make the waterfront planning process easier to navigate and truly transparent. Steinberg responded “as much as I appreciate your trust in me, to crack open what is a Kafkaesque agency”, he didn’t have access to that information any more than anyone else did currently in the city.

“I strongly urge us not to legitimize this process,” said Heiko. “The licensing process is a sham, the results are a sham. Some people may think I’m just an activist with an agenda, I think this is an agenda that every single Philadelphian now shares. If it’s truly a sham, then let’s get politicians like Frank DiCicco, who’ve already said it’s a sham, to come out and challenge the PGCB to delay this process, and start from the beginning, and actually pick the sites that are most appropriate, not in residential areas, maybe not on the waterfront, and have the five operators compete for sites, not compete for licenses. It’s ridiculous this process has gotten this far and we haven’t intervened as a city and stood up against the state in this process.” His statement was followed by clapping in the room.

Responding to inquiries about where the city was in dealing with casinos, Woodcock said she had met with groups around the casino sites to understand the issues and to prepare for the PGCB’s licensing decisions due later this month. “Obviously we aren’t in the driver’s seat here, but after the licenses are awarded, there will be a CED established around the casinos and we’re looking at ways to also look at the spillover areas and to address those with land-use policies that would protect the neighborhood,” she said.

“Right now we’re trying to understand the traffic implication,” Steinberg said, “because that’s really the piece we can begin to focus on.” He reiterated that there will be a joint press announcement after the licensing decisions are made “that helps us understand the magnitude of the traffic impact of the proposals. So, again, we don’t know what we’re dealing with yet. Nobody does.”

Finally, Steinberg emphasized the importance of the upcoming value sessions scheduled for December 11, 13, and 14, while agreeing to try to add another value session after the holidays to accomodate South Philadelphia’s concerns as well as the concerns of other neighborhoods tied up with casino issues. But he urged the group to get as many people as possible out to the forums next week, characterizing them as “vitally important to the foundation we are going to lay for the principles that are put forward for development. The more voices that are heard, the stronger the civic foundation for this plan will be, and that’s ultimately what this is going to rest on. The voices of the longshoremen, the voices of those who have recently moved here, the voices of the organizations who have been working up and down the waterfront, the voices of long-term neighbors who have been here for many generations, the voices of those who are just interested in the waterfront for whatever reason, the developers, the professionals, but most importantly, the people on the ground who represent multiple different interests and communities. We need, want and urge all of you to bring as many people as possible to these sessions.”

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2006-12-06 17:58:21

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