What a shame that none of the mayoral candidates found time in their campaign schedules to hear an all-star roster of architects and planners roll out their big ideas for Philadelphia's central Delaware waterfront. During a two-hour presentation on Saturday, the designers concocted a thrilling vision of how that wasted landscape might be reborn.
If there's one thing Philadelphia's next mayor could use, it's an inspiring civic vision. Here's one, ready-made.
So much of the campaign has revolved around the grim reality show of crime, drugs and schools. Sure, these are vital issues. But in an age when American cities are competing for jobs and residents, a modern mayor can't be just a social worker. If Philadelphia's next leader expects people to stick around, he's going to have to conjure a dream of a better, more amenity-rich future. He'll need a plan that, in the words of Chicago's Daniel Burnham, has the "magic to stir men's blood."
Mayor Street, most definitely, does not believe in making plans, little or big, and Philadelphia has suffered for it. Unlike his counterparts in Chicago, New York and Washington, who fashioned themselves as ambitious master builders, Street sees himself as Philadelphia's chief handyman, dutifully towing abandoned cars and clearing derelict houses. Street is happy to cut ribbons for private developers, but he hasn't invested himself in any significant civic projects.
The next mayor can only go up from there.
Last weekend's brainstorming exercise, organized by Penn Praxis and funded by the William Penn Foundation, produced reams of ideas for improving the waterfront. But the designers argued that nothing will come of them unless the city deals with the great gully of Interstate 95 and Columbus Boulevard. It's a task that will cost unknown billions and won't produce a photo op until long after Street's successor is gone from City Hall.
So why should a politician bother when he's limited to two terms? Because a mayor who launches a great undertaking makes as much of a mark as the one who finishes it. Besides, without long-term planning, Philadelphia has no future.
Conveniently, Penn Praxis will release its final master plan in October, just before the election. The candidates should make a note now in their BlackBerrys about attending the presentation.
Since the plan is being crafted with political realities in mind, it will include several "quick-hit projects" that can be completed in short order, said Praxis director Harris Steinberg. The next mayor could announce his first effort in November and have something to show the public by the spring.
The waterfront-design teams produced two scenarios for dealing with the highway divide. One involves building a platform over the Center City portions of I-95 and I-676, thus reclaiming more than 50 acres for development. The more modest alternative would narrow the width of the road cut by stacking Columbus Boulevard on top of I-95.
One nice thing about this two-tier road system is that the walk from Front Street to the Delaware would feel more natural. As a sketch by architect Richard Meyer suggests, the level of Front and Market Streets isn't much higher than the river bulkhead. The city just needs to remove the Market Street overpass that is blocking the view.
But it's still too early to choose between these schemes. Instead, the next mayor should push the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for a fast-track feasibility study to determine the engineering hurdles involved in messing with the roads. The timing is perfect because I-95 is scheduled for reconstruction in about a decade.
By coincidence, the Philadelphia Water Department must construct a massive 25-foot-wide stormwater pipe along the Delaware to satisfy federal clean-water requirements. Since the road system will be torn up for these projects, it makes sense to rebuild I-95 better. But the planning needs to start now.
It may already be a little late for some improvements. PennDOT is on the verge of approving the reconstruction of I-95's Girard Avenue exit, a spaghetti swirl of ramps. Few people realize that the current design would involve making I-95 wider in the section between Girard Avenue and I-676.
That design also requires the demolition of the last surviving building from the Cramp Shipyard, a majestic, late-19th-century loft building. Even worse, the new ramps would make it impossible for Fishtown and Kensington residents to walk to the waterfront. Penn Praxis is working furiously to develop an alternative design.
Despite all the ideas presented last weekend, there was only one that qualified as a quick hit: It was the proposal from German landscape architect Peter Latz to retool the empty Delaware Power Station as a bio-gas generator. Besides breathing new life into the glorious building by John T. Windrim, designer of the Franklin Institute, it would demonstrate Philadelphia's commitment to green 21st-century technology.
I'd like to propose my own quick hit. When I-95 was shoved through Center City in the 1960s, the federal government consented to deck over a single block between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. Unfortunately, the landscaping and high brick walls are so unfriendly that hardly anyone ventures into the space. The design actually blocks views of the water for pedestrians on Front Street.
So clear away the clutter - except for the Irish Famine memorial. Then give people a reason to visit the deck. The city should take its cues from Franklin Square, where a new playground and miniature golf course have transformed that forgotten space. The I-95 deck might be big enough to accommodate a playground and the skateboard park the city has been promising. Imagine watching skateboarders on the half-pipe while cars whiz underneath on I-95. The key is to create a river overlook that keeps the Delaware firmly and symbolically in the public's line of sight. As waterfront projects go, this one's cheap.
There is also a nice symmetry that would come from building both the bio-gas generator and a play area on the waterfront: It would show that industry and leisure can peacefully coexist.
And that wouldn't be a bad vision for Philadelphia.
Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/skyline