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Dave Davies: Nutter works the waterfront. And cleanly, too. But effectively?

SEEMS LIKE everybody is smacking Mayor Nutter around lately, asking just what on earth has he done with two years in office.

SEEMS LIKE everybody is smacking Mayor Nutter around lately, asking just what on earth has he done with two years in office.

Well, I can name one thing: We just managed a competition for a $1 million public contract to plan waterfront development, and nobody got indicted.

You may recall that when Mayor Street appointed a committee to judge proposals for developing Penn's Landing a few years back, the chair of the panel, a friend and fundraiser of the mayor, went to jail on corruption charges.

A federal grand jury found that the chairman, attorney Leonard Ross, used the position to extract campaign contributions for Street, to steer business to his wife and to get himself a $150,000 loan.

When Mayor Nutter came into office, he blew up the tainted Penn's Landing Corp., an organization that operated largely in secret and was dominated by friends of the now-jailed state Sen. Vince Fumo.

Nutter replaced it with the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., an organization rich in planning and development professionals and free of elected officials.

Last month, I attended a show-and-tell night that the new agency held for the five finalists in its competition for the waterfront planning contract. It was in a big tent at the Festival Pier on Columbus Boulevard, with principals from the design firms manning booths with pictures of their work, and later answering questions in a panel discussion.

What struck me as I milled through the couple of hundred people there was the absence of politically connected lawyers, lobbyists, and publicists I was used to seeing anyplace there's a chance to feed at the public trough.

The crowd was full of architects and planners and community leaders, and everyone was just so, well, earnest.

When the New York-based design firm Cooper Robertson was named winner of the competition a couple of weeks later, I placed calls to each of the five finalists and asked some questions:

When they were competing for this work, did anybody ask for or suggest that they make a campaign contribution? Did anyone recommend that they hire a particular lawyer, lobbyist, communications consultant or local design partner who was politically wired?

I reached principals in four of the five firms and, without exception, they said nope, this thing was clean.

"I can say quite honestly that we experienced no such demands," said James Corner, whose New York firm finished out of the money. "All was very much above board. The DWRC is new, experienced and looking only for excellence - no cronyism or politicization as far as I could see."

Contrast that with the most memorable quote from the last Penn's Landing competition, when an FBI wiretap caught Ross explaining why he wanted to stretch the selection process out a little longer.

"I want to make sure all these other guys who want to have a shot are going to come to a few of our fundraisers," Ross said. "If we eliminate them too soon, we don't get their . . ."

Ross didn't finish the sentence, but everyone seemed to get the idea. He pled guilty and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. He's out now and working, trying to put his life back together.

So, Nutter has cleaned up the public side of waterfront development, and that's no small thing.

But whether the 18-month master plan takes us where we want to go is another question. The plan is supposed to build on the inspiring waterfront vision developed by Penn Praxis and create a framework for developing the Delaware from Oregon to Allegheny Avenue that will last for decades.

Some businesspeople say that the effort is run by planning nerds who think that they're playing SimCity and don't understand what it takes to build projects that actually create jobs and generate taxes.

If we don't draw on real-estate expertise and ignore what the market can actually produce, they warn, we could spend a fortune for a plan that just sits on the shelf - or worse, becomes a straightjacket that makes development impossible.

Maybe their fears are exaggerated, but it seems to me that the trick here is to strike a balance - to set guidelines that reflect public values but still tap the energy and innovation of entrepreneurs out to make a buck.

And there's a role for the elected officials who were driven off the Penn's Landing board, because if they don't buy into the new waterfront vision, there will be no public money for roads, bike trails and promenades that will make it special.

The point is that we need a government that's both clean and effective. Here's to both.