Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gloves Off on Waterfront Plan

If the reception that Penn Praxis' waterfront vision plan received at Tuesday's Planning Commission meeting is any indication, then the year-long study is in serious danger of ending up on a shelf - and with it, Philadelphia's last, desperate hope of realizing a humane, urban-scaled neighborhood on the Delaware. As I wrote in a recent column, a coalition of real estate interests is lobbying to scuttle one of the plan's big ideas, extending the city grid to the river's edge, because they feel it would restrict their flexibility to develop their property. The opposition launched its shock-and-awe campaign on Tuesday.

Of course, the opponents didn't specifically say they don't want a grid. Instead, the forward attack team made up of lawyer Michael Sklaroff and developer consultant Craig Schelter simply listed all the things wrong with the waterfront study. But it's not like they want to see those weaknesses corrected; they want to take the whole plan down. Certainly there are aspects of the study that reasonable people will want to quibble over: Is the recommended, 100-foot recreation path a bit too wide? Has Penn Praxis set aside enough land to accommodate the large-scale industrial users who might come along?Is it realistic to reduce Delaware Avenue to just two lanes? Does the plan offer a viable alternative to the ugly parking podiums like the one built at Waterfront Square?

It's true that the plan isn't perfect. But what plan is? The point is that it offers a planning philosophy that can be used as a starting point. We know there will have to be exceptions. The problem right now is there is no philosophy, no direction, no energy to shape the waterfront. As a result the Delaware has languished more than any big city waterfront in America. The situation isn't good for the public, which can't take full advantage of the river's beauty.

And it isn't good for developers either, as developer Sam Sherman pointed out Tuesday in a principled dissent from Sklaroff and Schelter. "This proposal will add value in the long term he argued. "Mangling the Delaware shore with suburban style gated cul de sacs will not only damage Philadelphia, but would undermine the development value of the waterfront. It is astonishing, even breathtaking, to think that a developer could be so foolish as to devalue their own development by requesting that their site be converted from a prime urban development opportunity to Sprawl Junkspace." Sherman, who is active with the Congress of New Urbanism, which just held its convention in Philadelphia, says the group has unanimously endorsed the Penn Praxis study.

Incredibly, several members of the planning commission actually voiced doubts about the wisdom of setting out a broad planning philosophy: "If we say where the streets should be, then we'll be pre-determining the type of development," commission member Gloria Levin fretted. Well, yes, pre-determining the shape of development is what planning agencies do.

Top Planner Janice Woodcock, who introduced the presentation, and Harris Steinberg, who has been overseeing the waterfront study, tried to make a pre-emptive strike against the forces of opposition. "Vision plans allow us to imagine the future," Woodcock said. But Sklaroff and Schelter seem to want to control what we imagine.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was impressed with the vision plan, and surprised by how scorned and anti-progressive Michael Sklaroff's comments were. He and his cohorts raised some very valid points, but his delivery seemed defensive and did not help him to make his case.

Most importantly, the quote you pointed out from Ms. Levin was infuriating. "If we say where the streets should be, then we'll be pre-determining the type of development," YES, DO YOUR JOB ALREADY!!! PLAN SOMETHING!!! This was my first Philadelphia Planning Commission meeting after attending numerous suburban planning board meetings, and several neighborhood zoning meetings, and somehow I expected a higher level of discourse from the commissioners.

I have not seen Penn Praxis’s full proposal, so I cannot say whether I agree or not, but I will say that they have thrown down the gauntlet, and the planning commission seems completely content to stay out of this fight. Sad.

11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Money clouds vision, long or short term.

You can run the city planning board like the Old City Civic Association with closed door committees, meetings at inane times so only non-working property owners can attend, and a governing board that no one seems to know when it meets, where, nor is anyone invited to attend?

Ummmm...good luck engendering a civic philosophy let alone a developmental future amidst that fiscal polyglot.

It's time to put the "Philadelphia" back in the Philadelphia Planning Board, not the land owners planning board. And it would be helpful to put the 'civic' back in the Old City Civic Association - as it stands, it is little more than a play toy for the landed gentry. Residents, as a whole, need not apply.

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gloria Levin needs to issue a retraction of her public statement or resign from the planning commission. To do neither is to acknowledge that she sits on a commission while being diametrically opposed to its mission and purpose.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating that the PCPC web site has no bio for Gloria Levin. What qualifications does she have to sit on this commission and make such ridiculous remarks?

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having lived near the Hudson in Lower Manhattan and witnessed the impressive revitalization of that waterfront, done on a human scale, with a mix of residential, park space and commercial, and having visited many leading cities that show vision by managing their waterfront development, it is embarrassing and distressing to see Philly continue to fritter away its waterfront.

There is a lack of vision (other than, as noted, towards suburban-style gated communities), and lack of controls for short-sighted, me-first projects along the waterfront. We have only to look to such cities as Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Paris to see how to mix open space, human scale, parks along with residential, commericial and industrial needs.

This is pathetic.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Fernando08 said...

There is about to be an explosion of competition for the scarce resource of riverfront property and without a plan now, the residential developers will find themselves squeezed by global demand for a port that easily allows foreign imports. The amount of money that can be raised by commercial interest willing to pay dearly for access to the East Coast markets will dwarf anything proposed by local or national real estate developers who have feasted on the extremely low cost of Philadelphia's post-industrial graveyard. Reports of global money center investment bankers willing to build entirely with private money docking facilities will give access to the strategically planned multi-modal infrastructure that Philadelphia has in place. It may be that Wal-Mart and Home Depot will be sold off to the highest and best use, off loading containers to truck and rail carriers. The amount of real jobs and ancillary real estate development, warehousing etc. will probably become the thing that devoured Philadelphia's waterfront, not condo and misplaced office development. Without a plan, even welcome residential and recreational development may be muscled aside. The plan for a grid extending to the river at strategic locations, Girard Ave to Washington Ave. may be the area for the kind of building Mr. Shelter would hope for, providing a barrier from industrial encroachment, which once ruled the entire shoreline. Leaving it open to an undetermined future may allow for the industrial past to be prologue for the future, unless we plan now to determine other uses. Determined by other than the biggest player with the best access to capital.

3:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with the Vision plan was in the presentation and production. PennPraxis kowtowed to anti-casino interests, but viewed meeting with the site owners in the same manner as compromising their integrity. While I agree with Inga that a good plan is adaptable, for the million bucks that this Vision cost, there could have been a greater attempt at coming up with something that has a snowball's chance in hell of becoming a reality. It would not have been difficulty for PennPraxis, if dialogue with the developers had occurred, to make the trail 50 feet instead of 100 feet; to recognize that some parcels should not have the street grid imposed upon them; to avoid the politically inflammatory commentary that PennPraxis is somehow "above" the "corruption and back room deals" that define Philadelphia. PennPraxis works in the hallowed halls of academia. Whether or not their work is adopted is of no consequence to them. However, for the public, and that includes land owners, it is very sad that the $1 million spent by PennPraxis will only result in a stack of paper; some excellent travel, wining and dining for PennPraxis and their international colleagues; and still no waterfront access for the rest of us.

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only man that counts is Michael Nutter. It remains to be seen what sort of mayor he will be, having spent the last few months attending $2,000/plate fundraisers hosted by real estate developers. Let's hope for the best.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'd rather PennPraxis have wasted that money then leave the waterfront solely to greedy and not-so-civically minded developers...

At least they are trying to fix this problem instead of grabbing at the land and trying to make as much money off the public as possible...

I see no reason why the Vision should be seen as anything other than a guiding hand for reasonable, sustainable, and responsible development.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

seems like diaolgue with the developers did occur...


seems like ti was the developers who were not talking. Perhaps Praxis could have waterboarded them to get some info on what they would have liked to see...

In fact the developers did not want any part of this process because the mere presence of any process at all limits thier otherwise unlimited power. They give money & support to politicians, they get to dictate thier terms.

They are not interested in talking. Why should they be?

I think we need to force this thing. Other developers will show up who want to play by the rules.

My hope is that Nutter gets behind it, and uses the pulpit and whatever tools he has to get this done....

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attended tghe presentation and agree with the comments posted by anonymous (5:12). I think everyone desires a plan for the central waterfront. I think the differences are about whether Penn Praxius has presented a plan, ie something useful that can allow for, or lead to, implementaton, or just a vision. I don't agree that there is such thing as a vision plan, it's one or the other.

What was presnted yesterday was decidedly, almost proudly, not a plan. Penn Praxis revealed themselves to be pretty much academics and maybe that is ok, if you can accept that the "vision" is really just a bunch of ideas that lack any real specificity and, in some cases, are actually not possible. The vision as prsented yesterday is almost saying that it doesn't want to be bothered with the burden of having to be achievable or realistic and that the purity of the vision is what is important. Pretty academic, from my perspective, but useful to some I suppose.

I also agree there was an arrogance and self-rightoeusness about the presentation that was offputting, and maybe offensive. Like they were the first people to ever do anything before and everyone else is corrupt or incompetent. I also thought it was arrogant that they made a point to say that they would provide the Planning Commission and its staff a copy of the 200 page report once it was published. I guess they are not seeking such a transparent process, or even other opinions, in actually producing the work. Kind of sounds like the casino operators with their plans and traffic reports. Not sure why.

I'd be interested to understand if the ideas presnted are really radically different from the Planning Commission's Plan for the central waterfront from the 1980s. Before we beat ourselves up too much, let's remember that there are some great things going on the other riverfront, and even on parts of the Delaware (Navy Yard and parts of North Delaware).

9:17 PM  
Blogger JHS said...

Google Dubai and see what they did - visionaries as opposed to myopic knuckleheads here.

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the street grid will not work if the plan includes a tunnel under ground for I-95. The land and cost is impossible for taxpayers to bear.

Covering I-95 and ramping a street above can and will provide two new streets and additional park and shopping areas.

The main project should be getting something done on Penns Landing proper to generate revenue that will offset the cost of other enhancements.

The cost of building streets and the timeframe would not generate revenue for the city for 10 to 20 years. There are other solutions.

Go back to the drawing board and have a reality check!!!!!

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since the vision plan reflects many of the citizens wishes, hammered out in exhaustive meetings across the city. It is based NOT ON PRAXIS ACADEMIC DREAMS. It includes provisions for large residential development, keeping the ports, building parks and perhaps most importantly, public transit to reduce traffic jams.

But it sounds like we have a (or a few) developer(s) posting here...

First they claim they never had a chance to meet with praxis.

Then they claim Praxis is just too arrogant for thier tastes. (Oh, exuse me for laughing in your face, developers and lawyers calling Praxis arrogant? PUH-LEASE!)

1) so many people in jail from this and previous attempts to develop the Deleware and
2)with so much to personally gain from this And
3)with the poor quality of Philadelphia's elected leaders, why should people not belive that the developers are both greedy and corrupted?

Praxis is an independant third party to this. They have presented an ideal that we can work towards. Simply saying 'Its impossible' is giving up before starting.

Or perhaps that is what you want?

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A history of the corruption on the Delaware...


2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A vision for the waterfront is what we need right now, and I would like to see the debate the plan generates make philly's leaders, present in both the public and private sectors-- (and that includes both property owners and residents alike)-- begin a civil conversation about what we do next. The presentation of the plan should not pit citizens against the 'system,' and should not wholesale condemn the system. Our work instead establish a new way to work together. Impassioned accuasations too general to be meaningfil.. and elaborate criticisms about villans and white knights do little to move us forward.

It is time to take this waterfront work and use it as a starting point; to recognize this as the moment when we stopped business as usual, and stopped the 'holier than thou' descriptions of where we have been. Develpers have long labored over unclear and unpredictable rules and take considerbale risks in their endeavors. Many are not familiar with the public access standards we find elsewhere... they are not yet able to see from the plan thus far the value added when a good urban design can move forward.

As for the government, which must be the central party in any planning effort... they have not had much voice in our recent past, and have been dealt an outdated set of policies and rules making it well near impossible to adminsiter development fairly and consistently. So lets change that beginning now.

As for the posts above, why sling insults at individuals who decide to work within government and serve, they volunteer, by the way. Why say that a question of the plan means the inqusitor wants to kill it? Why accuse property interests as motivated only by greed? We need to grow up as a city and start pulling in the same, informed, and positive direction. Since there are many issues to resolve, lets start now and not waste another five years trying to prove who is right.

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is still the best proposal, maybe Michael Nutter will revisit this and not be afraid to let us move on.

Privately funded, read the article for Atlantis

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is what the waterfront could look like with private financing and I-95 covered over by the developer.


I am a Waterfront resident

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

we needed a plan. to call it a vision, however, is almost an insult. a million dollars should be more than a vision. whats unfortunate about the work is that it is based on some kind of "ideal" thats completely uninteresting. grids are great, but there is so much to work with to make the grid thats proposed a real, tangible and unique aspects of the neighborhoods it extends from. in other words, streets were extended but there is little in the plan so far that really imbues the grid with a personality.

whats really too bad is that the attraction to planning for the long-term has completely overshadowed what we can do now. What can we do to improve connections through the big box development next year? what about temporary uses? there are a lot of interesting design ideas that could have been explored but were not.

all of this said, the effort needs to be applauded. its hard work to put out ideas for response and comment. its particularly hard when it hasn't been done on this scale in some time. so lets be critical of the effort and help the planning commission and other partners to develop this "starting point" into more varied and interesting directions. but lets not say it was a waste or shouldn't have been done. planning is valuable but we need constructive comments and not conspiracy theories.

1:13 PM  
Blogger yethica said...

"This is what the waterfront could look like with private financing and I-95 covered over by the developer.


I am a Waterfront resident"

That is hideous. Absolutely, utterly, completely hideous. When Inga Saffron is talking about an "urban scale neighborhood development" I tend to doubt that she necessarily means Dubai or that ugly behemoth-of-crap apartment complex. To me, urban scale means a lot of different things, not just "apartment building". It means park space and commercial space and intimate residential areas. We all are so caught up in NYC's and Baltimore's waterfront development that no one has bothered to look at cities outside our bubble of the USA for inspiration (excepting Dubai, which I do not find attractive at all). Why aren't we looking to places like Paris's Seine waterfront properties at and around the neighborhood of Bercy, and across the river at the Bibliotheque Nationale? Why aren't we using Montreal's beautiful adaptive reuse of the architecture and old industrial buildings on their waterfront as inspiration as well? Those particular reinventions (if you will) were highly respectful to the culture and urban style of their cities. The results were intimate, interesting, and diverse (especially at Bercy). I urge Philadelphia AND the developers to think with a little vision (like Penn Praxis) and consider the city -- its scale, fabric, and culture -- when coming up with a plan for the waterfront. Otherwise we're going to end up looking like a boring-a** Dubai rip-off. Yuck.

1:16 PM  

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