Friday, June 16, 2006

The Way It Works at the Planning Commission

There are more high-rise towers going up in Philadelphia today than anytime in the last 50 years. So how does the Planning Commission get through a meeting in under 45 minutes? Simple. They don't bother discussing anything. They just vote!

I arrived at the yesterday's 3 p.m. Planning Commission meeting about five minutes late and they were already racing through the agenda. Within minutes, the commission approved a new parking policy, a new historic district, and rezoned an important Delaware River tract where an affiliate of Donald Trump wants to build a 40-story condo tower. At the request of Councilman Frank DiCiccio, that Northern Liberties site was rezoned to a G-2 industrial to make it HARDER for Trump's people to build.

The commission then turned its attention to a second Delaware River site located in Fishtown, between Penn and Ellen Streets, where a developer wants to build two 36-story condo towers. In this case, the developer, called Petco, also wanted a rezoning - but from the existing G-2 industrial status to C3 residential. The commission was all set to bless the zoning change when one of the smarter members piped up and broke the silence: Isn't this the opposite of what we just did with the Trump site? he asked?

Duh. Yes.

Isn't this, like, uh, spot zoning? the smart commissioner asked.

Duh. Yes.

Then something really shocking happened. The two planning staffers handling the projects for the city, Martin Gregorski and Paula Brumbelow, told the commission not to worry. Yes, they were randomly and capriciously making zoning policy, but it would all be alright in the end. And besides, Brumbelow assured them, the neighbors are all in favor.

In fact, the Fishtown neighbors are not all in favor. Neighbors Allied for a Better Riverfront (NABR) is mighty unhappy with the Petco proposal, two blocky monoliths designed by Bower Lewis Thrower. They're still hashing out the details in negotiations. The last thing they needed was for the Planning Commission to undercut them. In the end, the wise commissioner suggested they table the rezoning until the July meeting. They did and Brumbelow was mighty miffed. Why? More work for her.

I used to think that the Planning Commission's knowingly carried out the political agenda of the city administration, but yesterday's meeting was a big eye-opener. It was the planning staff that was trying to railroad major zoning changes through - no doubt so they could pack up and go home. The commissioners were merely clueless. They needed to get good advice from the staff, but that didn't happen. What I realized was that combination of ignorant commissioners and expedient bureaucrats produce just the results the pols want.

It's not just that the Street Administration is allowing the Delaware Riverfront to be developed without a comprehensive master plan. It's allowing the waterfront to be developed without giving the matter a single moment of intelligent thought. And these are the people who are running America's fifth-largest city?


Blogger James Aslaksen said...

So is there anything--ANYTHING--that can be done to somehow legitimize the Planning Commission in this city?

12:12 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

What a horrible mess, and a good question in the first comment. I would put it slightly differently: the Planning Commission is not only lacking legitimacy; it is lacking competence. Legitimacy will flow from competence. But competence at the Planning Commission depends on having a plan and some authority to enforce it. The Planning Commission alone can't draw up a plan—not that any sane person would want it to in its current state. Nor can the city government, which clearly doesn't have a clue in these matters either. The process has to involve as many stakeholders as possible.

Whether such a process is even possible I don't know. But if we don't somehow develop a better plan, we will have the kind of "planning" that decides the future of neighborhoods after a two-minute discussion. That's what we have now.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Jethro H said...

I live a block from Delaware Avenue close to the proposed towers in Fishtown. There is not support for this project. There are a lot of people who haven't been informed about it and certainly nothing that the City is doing or the developer is doing is helping-in the absence of civic leadership is stepping into the void to ask some hard questions-like who is this developer anyway-do we want someone who hasn't developed anything like this before entrusted to build on our City's Front Yard? And do local community groups in Fishtown or other communities have the experience or resources to manage resident involvement and participation, design review, negotations on Community Benefits Agreements and more. Until a lot of these and other questions are answered we shouldn't let development of the riverfront move forward-we cannot trust this process and the long term negative impacts if we don't find a better way are really too great for this city to bear. The positives if we do this right are immeasurable. Please join NABR to help out, we need all the help we can get from lawyers to donors to activists willing to get some work done to benefit this city-it is our waterfront so let's start working to realize its potential for Philadelphians.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

This is very troubling that Paula Brumbelow assured the commission that Fishtown neighbors "are all in favor" of BLT's craptastic condo towers. The tone of Fishtown's meeting with the developers and architects was one of respect and a desire to hear them out--ie. we asked a lot of tough questions because we wanted to understand the plans before passing judgment, thus giving them the benefit of the doubt and the right to present their project. We also stressed the fact that Fishtown, like Northern Liberties, is going to need certain commitments and concessions to begin a negotiation regarding such large-scaled projects on our waterfront.

That said, I personally found the architecture unexceptional, over-sized for the site, and unwelcoming to the surrounding neighborhood with respect to public access to the riverfront and the creation of usable, semi-public space along the river for all residents of the city to enjoy. Say it loud again: we need a comprehensive development plan for the Delaware Riverfront AND the political will and vision from our mayor and city council to make such a plan a reality.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inga: I think you're attacking the wrong players. Everyone I know that works for the Planning Commission loves what they do, is highly competent, participates in lengthy discussions/arguments/persuasions to help the City grow in a positive manner, and is truly bereaved when decisions are made that will not help the City. The Planning Commission is bound not only to work for the public good, but also to pay heed to property rights and property law. As glib as the arguments may sometime seem, what you are missing is the forethought that goes into the creation of the recommendations by a knowledgable staff that is dwindling by the day.
It would be more productive for the City if the design professionals could refrain from bashing each other and carry on with mutual respect and professional courtesy.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am surprised to see this criticism levelled at good city servants. At the Zoning Board, Ms. Brumbelow does a fantastic job. If she erred during the meeting on this particular property, that's possible; we're all human. But in a city government with so many hacks, shifty people or worse, there is no reason to criticize a quality person. As the blog describes, the system worked here: the item was tabled for a month. To read something into someone's facial expressions is a very subjective thing -- and then to purport to read her mind? I see no problem at all with the Planning Commission itself. I see a problem with the way that the Zoning Law fails to give the Commission more of a relevant role. And for that we should blame the politicians.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Philadelphia once again proves it is a city of backroom deals. Someone probably wants to stick it to Trump to get a donation to their favorite charity. Also, the city has too many uncoordinated agencies that are probably understaffed. Master city planner Edmund Bacon must be turning over in his grave laughing at the idiocy of how things are now unfolding in the city. A certain agency has a good idea then there is some opposition and everything melts down to paralysis. One example would be the CCD had some good ideas of expanding and developing the Parkway; well every community group got involved could not agree on any thing and the projects all seem on hold (the Vine Expressway was supposed to be built over with a park). Ditto for Penn's Landing it has been built over with the city's underbelly all wanting a back room handout. Well those are my thoughts for the day.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Jethro H said...

All these anonymous posters, what gives? How about we actually review the developer's track record and the design of these towers? Sometimes neighbors actually know what we are talking about, and doesn't government exist for the people not for the proponents of development? Use your name and stop assuming everyone in architecture and planning are on the same side, that is a very simplistic notion indeed.

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad Jethro used his full name because I can't figure out who he really is. As for the neighbors groups; they are very pivotal, but they don't always know what's best for the city. Nor do most of the Community groups have any type of development or architectural experience. However, they get it right 85% of the time. For example, of a short sighted community decision, take the Spring Garden neighbors association. They killed a downtown Phillies stadium that would have more significantly increased their property values. Take a look at Wrigleyville and the Inner Harbor 'hoods. Spring Garden Street would be filled with restaurants and shops from 20th street down to 10th Street. Unfortunately, East of Broad Spring Garden is a waste-land and West of Broad it has a cheap chinese joint a tacky diner and a hoagie shop; how exciting!!??**

11:55 PM  
Blogger Jethro H said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Paula Brumbelow attend any of the community meetings for this proposal? If not, who told her that the community groups supported it? May be all of the planners at the Planning Commission should attend any and all meetings involving proposals that they will be presenting at their commission meetings.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:59 PM  
Blogger huntress said...

All of you are attacking the wrong group of people. I know first hand that workers in the planning commission are not always pleased with what comes to the table. After following zoning specifications, etc. there is little they can do if they don't approve of the project. It's the city council who you need to attack and vote out if you have a problem. Stop voting the ignorant politicians who nothing about anything. Don't attack the workers who are just following orders.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go to and communicate with our elected officials. Tell them how you feel about the ineptitude of the Planning Commission and other city agencies. You might possibly want to point them to this blog.

12:57 PM  
Blogger normajean said...

Inga: I understand criticizing a city agency for the failure of performing its duties, but why the personal attack on a particular worker? This seems out of place for you, and doesn't support constructive criticism that would be helpful to the agency.

2:52 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Huntress has a point—elected officials are ultimately responsible—but the problem is how to vote the bad ones out. In our Council district, the incumbent always runs unopposed in the primary. In the general election, the opponents are a Republican who wins maybe ten percent of the vote and usually a Green who is lucky to win one percent. The one time there was any opposition in the primary, it got just under two-thirds of the vote, but unfortunately that tally was evenly split among two candidates who never spoke to each other, let alone considered joining forces. Against a united opposition, the incumbent would have lost, but the opposition was not united.

A distressing situation. I wish I had some answers.

5:45 PM  
Anonymous bob said...

City planning?

There is no plan for the delaware river waterfront - no plan on how these independent projects will mesh and ultimately form THE philadelphia waterfront. This is to not even mention the casinos - which have been approved with a pollyanna's regard for traffic, crime, and goodness forbid - the long-term well-being of the city of philadelphia.

also, the argument about who makes better decisions - the neighbors or the city officials - well, it just distracts from the FACT that THERE IS NO PLAN FOR THE WATERFRONT!!

how philadelphia can anyone tell what project is good for if there is no comprehensive plan?

6:54 PM  
Blogger Jethro H said...

Great points Bob. NABR is pushing to make sure residents and communities most impacted by what happens along the river as well as all citizens of Philadelphia have a say in developing the riverfront plan. A plan with community and public support will enable projects to move forward based on how well a project conforms to the development and planning guidelines which will be part of the plan. Let's make sure the public first and then the politicians and city and state employees who work for us do their job to help us get the best riverfront we all deserve. Thanks, Jethro Lance Heiko

12:01 AM  
Blogger NE Suburbanite said...

The common sense rule of architecture has always been "Form follows function." And unless the laws of physics has changed dramatically from back when that rule was first asserted I see no reason to abandon it now.

So applying that rule in this case, first and foremost we have to reach an agreement on what the function of the new development is to be. And by that I mean the consequences of it both good and bad. For if the aim is to destroy longstanding Philadelphia neighborhoods, then yes, the new development should be such that it causes all sorts of traffic nightmares, renders all residential dwellings in close proximity totally uninhabitable, makes it totally impossible for businesses nearby to operate profitably and so on. For this is the function we inadvertantly get when all focus is on form alone. But if the actual -- and only -- aim is to uplift the city of Philadelphia, then all focus should be on how to make the traffic situation in the area better for everyone, how to make the residential dwellings nearby far more desirable places to reside in, how to boost profitability for businesses nearby and so on. With all new development being proposed that should be the very starting point and all else should be premised on that alone. Not in complete disregard of it. Unless, of course, that is the ultimate aim/function of the new development....which, incidentally, clearly seems to be the Fox Chase Cancer Center's ultimate aim with its proposal to expand on neighboring (and currently very beautiful) Burholme Park up in Northeast Philadelphia. For in terms of form follows function at its best, Burholme Park demonstrates this masterfully. Without it, everything around it would be be rundown ghetto. And the same would be true if the Banjamin Franklin Parkway were done away with, or had that stadium once proposed for Chinatown actually gotten built.

Philadelphia is rich with good examples of form follows function at its best, ranging from City Hall to the Art Museum to Boat House Row to 30th Street Station to Head House Square and so forth and so on. Though to be sure each is beautiful, focus on form was at the forefront of why they are. In stark contrast we can look at Society Hill Towers and similar monuments to hideousness where all focus on function was entirely about self, and where anything qualifying as form has yet to emerge, and clearly never shall.

3:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saffron's description of the June 15 Planning Commission meeting is misleading and inaccurate.

Paula Brumbelow did not tell the commission that "the neighbors are all in favor [of the rezoning];" she accurately reported that the developer had met with the Fishtown Neighbors'Association and had committed to further meetings with the group.

The spot zoning question was not simply brushed aside. When questioned about it, Marty Gregorski responded that the commission staff had requested, and received, an opinion from the City Law Deparment on the issue. This is hardly the haphazared approach Saffron suggests.

The "wise commissioner" who suggested tabling the rezoning was Acting Executive Director Tom Chapman. Having criticized Chapman by name in the past, it's interesting that Saffron fails to identify him in this favorable context.

Finally, no one present -- including the developer's representatives (of whom I was one) -- was "miffed" at the commission's decision to table the rezoning. Paula Brumbelow was particularly unlikely to react as Saffron describes given that it was her boss, Tom Chapman, who made the recommendation.

Sharon Suleta

6:52 PM  

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