Source: Philadelphia Daily News
Date: May 31, 2006
Byline: Gregory Heller

How to tackle the riverfront

AS OF LATE, many had given up hope of transforming the Delaware waterfront into a successful urban space.

For years, with an outdated zoning code and lack of coordinated vision, the Delaware has been littered with suburban-style strip malls and big-box stores, disconnected from Center City and surrounding neighborhoods.

The recent building boom and prospect of gaming provide the investment for us to finally turn our waterfront into a world-class urban destination. But until now, our elected officials have not backed the kind of planning effort we need to make it successful.

We may finally have our chance. Gov. Rendell recently put a moratorium on developing state-owned property along the river, and announced that he, Mayor Street and Sen. Vince Fumo propose creating a nonprofit to bring in national advisers, analyze and structure the Delaware’s development.

The emphasis on planning is critical, the idea of bringing in experts is promising, and the shared commitment of the city and state gives hope. But while providing the opportunity to fix some mistakes, this proposal opens the door to many new ones.

A new organization will greatly reduce the role of the City Planning Commission — the agency our tax dollars pay to handle planning and implementation.

With gaming, we have seen a disturbing shift from local to state control. The governor’s proposal seems to follow this trend. There is precedent for a private waterfront development entity in the Penn’s Landing Corp., but for a much-larger area, with profound civic impact, the governor’s proposal is not the right path.

Instead of creating a new organization, the governor, mayor, Sen. Fumo and City Council should finally empower the Planning Commission to implement a vision for transforming the Delaware waterfront into a vibrant urban space. We should still bring in outside experts, but the city needs to control its own destiny and protect the public interest.

Several years ago, the Planning Commission created its North Delaware Waterfront Plan. But the mayor and Council never threw their weight behind it. Without a mandate, the commission will continue making plans without results, while the city develops as sub-par, disconnected projects.

This mindset is left over from the years Philadelphia was desperate for development, but those days are over. A study by Florida-based Bankrate Inc. reports that Philadelphia is the only East Coast city showing no signs of slowdown in its housing market.

Planning often gets a bad rap in Philly, viewed as impeding progress. The reality is the opposite. Most major cities undertake serious planning because they understand it is good business. This is how a city protects its investment, attracts high-value private development and ensures the best for its citizens.

PHILADELPHIA IS lucky to have qualified developers seeking to build. But it isn’t their job to think in terms of a master plan. Professional planners can envision a result that others simply would not — one that ties many sites together.

We need a zoning code and map, master plans and a community process that allow developers flexibility, but also ensure a stronger, coordinated final product.

The mayor and City Council have not let the Planning Commission do its job. Philadelphia is one of the last major cities that has not revised its zoning code.

Community groups hire private firms to produce neighborhood plans — what our tax dollars are supposed to pay for. Almost nothing can be built by-right, requiring a zoning variance for each project. Nobody is representing the public interest, pushing for local amenities and open space. This is no way to build a city. It is time for change.

The Delaware waterfront holds profound potential, but developers are not going to design a condo tower on Delaware Avenue as if it were in Center City, with ground-floor retail, hidden parking, and walkable sidewalks.

Why would they? There is nothing around but a sea of traffic. It is the job of our planners to show us a vision of what could be. It is the job of our elected officials to give the Planning Commission a mandate, connecting its efforts to political will, funding and a civic agenda.

The governor’s focus on planning gives us the chance to do the right thing. But instead of creating a new entity, let’s allow the Planning Commission to do its job. Only this way will we control our destiny, protect the public interest and transform our riverfront into a true local amenity.

Gregory Heller sits on the steering committee of the Philadelphia Design Advocacy Group and works as a planner in Philadelphia.