Mayor Nutter is expected to announce tonight a major reorganization of the beleaguered Penn's Landing Corp. as a first step toward implementing an ambitious development plan for the Delaware River waterfront, according to those involved in the discussions.
The overhaul of the troubled agency, which has been plagued by corruption scandals and development failures since its creation in 1970, is the top recommendation in a 10-point waterfront-action plan that will be unveiled tonight by PennPraxis, the nonprofit planning group affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania.
The program, which also recommends a master plan, new waterfront zoning, and the immediate construction of two new parks and a bike trail, will be presented to the public at 6:30 p.m. at the Independence Seaport Museum on Penn's Landing.
The mayor is scheduled to address the audience as part of that presentation, and he is expected to use the speech to endorse the work of PennPraxis, which last fall offered the city a detailed road map for transforming a bleak industrial landscape into a seven-mile-long necklace of parks, trails, housing and businesses, all linked into Philadelphia's neighborhoods by an extension of the city street grid.
Nutter declined to speak in detail yesterday, except to say, "I think the PennPraxis plan shares a lot of the views I have about the waterfront." He said he would talk about his vision tonight and "what kind of development entity should be in charge."
Because of Penn's Landing Corp.'s reputation as a secretive club run as a bastion of patronage by political insiders, PennPraxis argues that the city needs to start with a clean slate. It recommends dissolving the current board and completely restructuring the agency. The size of the board would be reduced from 26 to a much smaller number, and its proceedings would be opened to the public.
PennPraxis also wants Nutter to rebrand the agency by giving it a new name. "Our recommendation," said PennPraxis director Harris Steinberg, "is that the mayor convene the board to kill the board. But it is more than a rebranding because it is a change in the mission, governance and jurisdiction."
Since the mayor directly controls eight board seats and has influence over others, Steinberg believes that Nutter would have no problem finding the votes to carry out the reorganization.
Nutter also is likely to receive support from City Council and good-government groups. Councilmen James F. Kenney and Frank DiCicco said they would approve the changes, provided the agency was not totally dismantled. "If we were able to have a more transparent board, a lot of the suspicions that there are backroom deals going on . . . would be minimized," said DiCicco, who sits on the agency's board. His district includes Penn's Landing.
Unable to muster a quorum, the board, which is supposed to meet monthly, has not convened once this year, and it met just two or three times in 2007, DiCicco said. Several seats have long been vacant because of expired terms and, he said, the board has "kind of just limped along" the last few years.
Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a government-watchdog group, said that "recreating the agency in some other form makes a lot of sense."
PennPraxis made the agency's transformation its top priority because it believes the waterfront needs a strong management authority to coordinate the job of rezoning riverside property and raising funds to build new parks, trails and infrastructure - investments that would make the area more attractive to developers.
The agency has been so focused on luring a developer to the 13 acres between Market and Walnut Streets known as Penn's Landing that it has done relatively little to improve other parts of the waterfront, Steinberg said.
Plagued by a series of scandals, including one that sent a board member to jail on corruption charges during the Street administration, the agency has been unable to accomplish much beyond programming public events and landscaping Columbus Boulevard. As a result, some of the more desirable development sites have languished, while others have been developed with gated communities, parking garages and big-box stores.
The arrival of two casinos could make it harder to develop the waterfront in a pedestrian-friendly way. Philadelphia is years behind other cities in reclaiming its main waterfront for public enjoyment.
The inner workings of Penn's Landing Corp. have long been a mystery. It manages nearly 30 acres of city-owned land and receives substantial city funding, but casts no votes in public despite a board that includes the mayor and seven of his aides, U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady, State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, and Councilmen Kenney and DiCicco, among others.
Some at PennPraxis had considered the possibility of killing off the agency and creating an entirely new entity. In some cities, the mayor's office directly oversees waterfront development. But ultimately, Steinberg said, PennPraxis concluded that a waterfront-management agency should not be subjected to the same timeline and political pressures as a mayoral administration, since it can take well over a decade to realize a complex project.
Whatever structural changes are made at Penn's Landing Corp., they are likely to be guided by the city's new deputy mayor for commerce and planning, Andy Altman. He previously ran Washington's Anacostia Waterfront Development Corp., which transformed a derelict riverfront into a thriving neighborhood that is now home to a baseball stadium and hundreds of new housing units.
Steinberg stressed that the reorganized Penn's Landing Corp. would be only a vehicle for achieving other goals outlined in PennPraxis' 10-point action plan. The document recommends that the city commit to a detailed multiyear master plan and rezoning effort.
At the same time, it suggests that the city start work immediately on greening two existing piers for public use, including Festival Pier at the foot of Spring Garden Street, and improving Penn Treaty and Pulaski Parks. The plan sets out other projects the city can start quickly, such as seeking PATCO support to build a light-rail line along the waterfront.
If the mayor gives the OK tonight, the Center City District's Paul Levy said, his group is prepared to start work immediately on a 2.1-mile recreation trail from the Chart House restaurant south to Pier 70, near the Ikea shopping complex. He has mapped out the route and begun the process of obtaining rights-of-way from property owners. A simple asphalt path could be constructed in six to nine months, he said.
Although Philadelphians have been repeatedly disappointed by failed waterfront projects, the yearlong PennPraxis study gave hope that the city could finally realize the Delaware's potential. Steinberg said the action plan was intended to deliver quick results before city residents lost heart again.