by Caryn Hunt
“What if?” asks native Philadelphian and PennPraxis executive director Harris Steinberg. What if Philadelphia could transform itself into a truly world-class city? What if we created “one of the greatest boulevards in the world”? What if that plan was for a “public realm along the waterfront that is so Philadelphian that all of us feel comfortable there”? Taking the great waterfronts and public spaces of the world as inspiration, he routinely conveys his passion for possibility, and a grand view of Philadelphia’s future, one he insists should be the expression of the people. He is the guiding light for the new central Delaware planning process, and in his view, Philadelphians are limited only by their imaginations. In a surprise move last month, Mayor Street issued an executive order charging PennPraxis, the clinical branch of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, to lead a comprehensive planning initiatve to develop the central Delaware riverfront. They are committed to a broad program of citizen engagement. The message from PennPraxis is consistent: it’s about building a shared vision for the future of Philadelphia, one that takes the views of residents into consideration.
PennPraxis has organized some of the largest and most productive civic conversations the city has had to date, including the Penn’s Landing Forums in 2003, co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The themes of the forum resolved to a few key principles, including a clear demand for a development plan that encompasses the entire riverfront. Citizens expressed concern for public access, public spaces, and strengthening neighborhood connections to the river. Many said they looked to the river for respite from city life, for family recreation like fishing, boating and biking, and for a chance to improve the area’s ability to attract new businesses and residents, that add strenth to the local economy.
Yes, it’s ambitious. Not just because of the scope of the project, and the enormous calculations that will go into it, including serious questions concerning the nexus of various city infrastructure challenges and potential problems. (Questions directed to the Philadelphia Planning Commission about the review processes in place to identify possible infrastructure problems before development plans are finalized need to be cleared through the Mayor’s office, and could not be answered in time for this article.)
Equally ambitious is the community input mechanism that is being assembled. It is a work in progress as much as the plan itself. In the past, Philadelphians have typically been left out of major policy decisions about the city’s development, except when asked to vote on them. The PennPraxis plan is a new paradigm for Philadelphia, one that may take some time to fully catch on. Steinberg’s can-do attitude and enormous energy for the job are a welcome change, and signal hope for a future as open and transparent as the process he is advocating.
Development, Philly Style
Development in the city has so far been decided by City Council members and developer-driven, with an antiquated zoning code requiring a patchwork of variances to get jobs done. It’s inefficient, and places too much decision-making authority in people with no background in public planning or engineering. It is not a recipe for smart growth. Ill-conceived development has added to frustrating traffic snarls up and down Columbus Boulevard, and with the potential addition of one or two casinos, the situation is likely to significantly worsen. Though residents fought mightily to win back zoning authority over casinos for the city when the state tried to strip them away, the 12 members of Council recently passed an amendment to the Commercial Entertainment District bill (060631) that hands that authority, for all intents and purposes, right back to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in Harrisburg. Council members characterize themselves as at the mercy of the state, and say they are helpless. They seem to have their own vision in mind for the Delaware waterfront, one that is already in progress and did not include the public in the dialogue.
And this is part of the reason the Delaware River plan is so unique. PennPraxis, as administrator, is working hand in glove with the Philadelphia Planning Commission and its newly appointed executive director Janice Woodcock, who emphasizes “we want to have a high quality conversation” with the public. Steinberg says, “the greatest benefit that we have is to bring all these players to the table to share information. There are lots of good things going on in isolation that none of us know about. So by connecting the dots and highlighting the overall set of issues, we have a chance of doing something smart for once.”
The project’s organizational structure reflects a commitment to a shift in the usual power relationships that guide city development. Mayor Street invited representatives from 45 different agencies and organizations to form an Advisory Group, including 15 neighborhood associations representing the river wards. The Steering Committee has 3 designees from these associations. Chair for both bodies is PCPC director Janice Woodcock. There is massive coordination among the various relevant city agencies, similar to the inter-agency coordination in place on the city’s open spaces project, GreenPlan, also currently being developed.
Cities all over the world have been redeveloping their waterfronts to benefit residents, tourists and business alike. New York City, a city similar to Philadelphia in many regards, has built stellar, pedestrian-friendly waterfronts through a long-term, open, transparent community engagement process that puts all stakeholder concerns on the table. In the end, they have shown by example that this approach yields solid economic, social and environmental benefits.
Conversation or Brawl?
At a November 20th Advisory Group meeting, Pennsport Neighborhood Association delegate John Dougherty expressed skepticism that this collaborative approach could work in Philadelphia. “The whole city can’t be involved in the process. You have representatives; representatives have a responsibility to get feedback from people. We need to make some hard decisions and live with them,” he said. He pointed out that even within his own civic association there are often deep divisions. In fact, the cantankerous South Philadelphia civics couldn’t come to an agreement about who to send as their representative to the Steering Committee. Dr. Harris Sokoloff of Penn’s Graduate School of Education, facilitated their discussion. While acknowledging complexities, he said, “this group is a model for the process as a whole. Your ability to come together to work through issues, to listen to each other, to play all of your roles, your success in that will then go out and strengthen the community’s ability to do this work. You show the community how you’re doing it, and they will do the work the same way.” In the end, the South Philadelphia civic associations reached an agreement.
In the past few years of the building boom, neighborhood groups have fought to manage the impact of that development on their communities without much guidance from the city. Residents are weary from continually fighting fast-tracked projects. Fishtown Neighborhood Association delegate to the Advisory Group Jeremy Beaudry, while optimistic about the planning process, expressed reservations about the rushed timetable. PennPraxis is still developing their process schedule, so it’s difficult to gauge the extent of public discourse currently being planned. But Beaudry said, “We have these value sessions coming up and it’s my sense that they are a first step towards other public forums to bring citizens of Philadelphia into the process. In any project like this, as you get feedback and go through it, you have to be flexible to a certain degree to allow for changes in the process.”
He noted that a similar large-scale project executed in New York had more than 70 public meetings over a year and a half. “This thing has to be done right,” Beaudry said, “and that means real civic input and engagement. And it means numbers, too. You need a lot of meetings with smaller groups of communities and larger meetings with big turnout as well. And maybe there are other ways to engage the public in the process.” Beaudry pointed out that educating the public about the issues involved is a big goal, “one that warrants a public service campaign, advertising, public service announcements, to really reach out to citizens and let them know why they should care about this stuff, and the different factors involved, and their part in it.”
The PennPraxis community engagement process is just gearing up. PennPraxis has scheduled a series of “value session” forums on December 11th, 13th and 14th. These are broad public meetings designed to elicit input from the citizens about their core concerns. PennPraxis hosted a series of walks along the river where residents were encouraged to throw out ideas about what they’d like to see developed along the Delaware. They were diverse and creative, ideas that reflect the Mayor’s call to balance “the public good, access to the waterfront, open spaces and quality urban development”.
The project website, www.PlanPhilly.com, is updated regularly, useful, informative, and aspires to be just as interactive and transparent as the larger planning process.
In addition to a coordinated plan to develop the waterfront, “the process will culminate with the creation of an implementing entity and strategy designed to protect the public’s role in the creation of the plan”, Steinberg said. As he puts it, “the ultimate client in this is the people of the city of Philadelphia, and their view and their vision.” Conversation or brawl, either way. Harris Steinberg and PennPraxis have set a big table, and the public is invited.