At a time when bad news is unrelenting, the city got good news this month when the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation chose a Durst Organization proposal to develop Penn’s Landing. The choice of Durst’s 3.5 million square feet development of homes, shops and offices over a Sixers proposal which would have at its centerpiece a sports arena is good news, not only for the $2.2 billion investment it represents — with no expectations of big public subsidies. It was a victory for a master planning process largely driven by the public that began 12 years ago and holds key lessons for today.
In 2006, Penn Praxis began a process that invited thousands of Philadelphians to provide input on their vision for the central Delaware waterfront. The result was a master plan for land use, transportation, and development. Since DRWC released the plan in 2011, it has served as a tool to shape the waterfront we have today, with its vital mix of public, private and commercial space. The Penn’s Landing decision was based on how the winning proposal adhered to those guidelines.
The Central Delaware master plan — both its origins and its execution — represented a turn from the backroom, politically connected (and often taxpayer-supported) deals that for too long drove development in the city and led to a waterfront that was dominated by cars and big box stores. The master plan was one of the few major initiatives in recent memory that managed to transcend mayoral administrations: Mayor John Street signed the original executive order for the process, which continued and flourished under Michael Nutter, and, as last week’s decision illustrations, continues to function.
The recent waterfront decision is a powerful reminder of the importance of public input, at a time when such opportunities are diminished. The radical transformation of civic life that we’ve experienced for the past six months has limited public access to the business of government. Leaders are making hasty decisions in crisis management mode, while the rest of us huddle in our houses waiting for it all to be over.
That’s why it’s a good time to ask: What’s the next Delaware waterfront? Where is the next area that should demand full scale civic engagement to help chart the city’s course?
We’re not just talking about a physical location like the waterfront — though there are major projects around the city that will continue to transform our landscape. That includes the 1,400 acre PES refinery site purchased by Hilco earlier this year. This week, Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and Clean Air Council will release its findings from a preliminary public process that takes a page from the waterfront process (in fact, both were run by Lindy director Harris Steinberg, and both funded by William Penn Foundation).
The site’s private ownership will limit public influence over planning. But Hilco is seeking public support in the form of a Knowledge Opportunity Zone tax break which should mandate a certain level of public input.
Meanwhile, the pandemic’s devastation of budgets, including Philadelphia’s, required massive and hasty cuts to services and hikes in certain taxes with little public conversation. One of the significant changes to the $4.8 billion city budget was a retreat from a $19 million hike in the police budget following protests and calls to reform and defund the police. While the prompt response on the police budget was welcome, where is the plan for a more methodical and comprehensive public conversation about what we want from the police? A single budget cut should not be the end of the conversation about the shape and priorities of policing, but the beginning.
The city and region’s most critical challenge is the road we must take to economic recovery. Building a path to the future will be complicated, but it’s also a massive opportunity to bring people together to decide what kind of city we want to be as we emerge from this crisis. What will be our priorities? Who is drafting that plan? Who will start and execute that process?
Despite limits on public gatherings and forums, there are plenty of meaningful ways to begin asking people what they want and how to get there. The good news: citizens don’t have to wait to be asked. There are equally smart ways to begin the process themselves and demand that their voices be heard.