For Philadelphia government, this was radical:
Design a vision for the Delaware River waterfront by actually asking people who live along the river what they would like to see.
At 13 sessions over the last year, a team from the University of Pennsylvania worked with residents, as well as representatives from commercial and government interests, to divine the future of a seven-mile stretch of the central Delaware waterfront.
On Nov. 14, Penn Praxis will officially unveil the results at a public forum at the Convention Center.
It's a vision, not a plan set in stone.
But this "We the People" approach has produced a view of the future that is radically different from what exists or is proposed for the riverfront from South Philadelphia to Port Richmond.
There are no vast, gated communities.
There are no big-box stores blocking the view.
There are no acres of blacktop.
There are no casinos.
Instead, there is a grid of walkable streets - much like the neighborhoods to the west of Interstate 95 - that extend right to the river's edge.
There are parks with green space.
There are wide sidewalks and a public pathway along the water.
There are submerged parts of I-95 and better public transit.
This future vision is running into present-day attacks. A small, vocal group of critics from the development community is trying to scuttle the plan. "Not grounded in reality," said Michael Sklaroff, a zoning lawyer, at a presentation last Tuesday before the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
"Flawed," added Craig Schelter, a real estate consultant and former head of the commission.
But many civic leaders who were involved in the process are vowing to keep the momentum going and insisting that their ideas get a fair airing with the public, as well as the next mayor.
Neither City Council nor the City Planning Commission has made a commitment to act on the plan, leaving open what happens next. Instead of disbanding, the civic groups that were involved in the process have voted to stay active and continue to advocate the plan.
"The community has been awakened," said Steven Weixler, who represented the Society Hill Civic Association in the Penn Praxis advisory group.
"We have solidarity among civic associations, and the number of people setting off toward this goal is going to make this happen," he said.
Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District, who also was part of the advisory group, said the next step is balancing the interests of residents with property owners who have plans for waterfront projects.
"So long as the process stays divorced from the practical realities of balancing those interests . . . we don't move forward," he said.
The call for a riverfront plan grew out of the mounting frustration of Frank DiCicco, the city councilman who represents the central Delaware district.
DiCicco was getting bombarded with requests from developers to build big projects on the waterfront. To date, there are 22 ideas on the drawing boards.
Constituents, meanwhile, were calling for a moratorium until the city could think through how it wanted to transform industrial wasteland into new uses.
DiCicco reached out to Penn Praxis, the arm of Penn's design school that applies classroom knowledge to real-life situations. Harris Steinberg, its head, took on the assignment with one caveat: The public had to be engaged in a thoroughly transparent process.
Steinberg felt that too many decisions regarding land use were made by a handful of power brokers behind closed doors.
"We made it our policy that this would not just be experts or connected people making decisions," Steinberg said. "It's not about backroom deals. It's about the people."
Mayor Street signed an executive order on Oct. 12, 2006, to create a broad-based advisory group to get the process rolling. Another Penn professor, Harris Sokoloff, was brought in to engage the public in meetings.
There were representatives from 15 neighborhood associations; three commercial districts; four chambers of commerce; 17 city and state offices; and four port groups.
But two months after the process set sail, it almost capsized.
On Dec. 20, the state announced its decision to locate two casinos on the central Delaware: the Foxwoods casino in Pennsport, and the SugarHouse project straddling Northern Liberties and Fishtown.
Civic groups were outraged that the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board would select two locations only three miles apart in areas already thick with cars and homes. In explaining its decision, the gaming board said the casinos would serve as "bookends" to a future entertainment zone - further infuriating local residents who felt the state, not the city, was making critical urban planning decisions.
Many residents felt they had no say in the matter and used the Penn Praxis forums to vent their anger. Meetings drew hundreds.
"Our process became the repository for everyone's pent-up frustration," Steinberg said.
"The state legislature and governor have essentially shoved these down the throats of Philadelphia," he said. "That's where all the tension and anger came from. . . . The state shut everyone out of the discussion."
Penn Praxis faced an open revolt when it tried to proceed under the assumption that any vision would have to include the casinos.
Weixler, of the Society Hill Civic Association, said his group considered withdrawing. It wasn't until May, when the entire process was at risk of collapsing, that he suggested a compromise of creating two versions: one with casinos, one without.
Only then did the process continue, leading to a plan that began circulating over the summer.
Steinberg said the "vision plan" reflects the values and standards set by the community. The 200-plus-page document that will be released to the public on Nov. 14 will have a version that includes casinos in the waterfront grid.
But the one that will be advocated from the podium does not.
"This was the kind of uncompromised vision that we wanted," said Matt Reuben, a representative for the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association.
Added Jeff Rush, president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association: "Many of us thought there was a higher and better use of the waterfront than loading it with casino entities, which would dictate the direction of the waterfront forever."
And now, the fireworks.
Developers, alarmed at what an idea like this could do to their projects, called on DiCicco last August.
"Here's what I told developers," DiCicco said. "Wouldn't it be easier for all of you, and less expensive, if we can come to an understanding of the appropriate way to develop the waterfront, so your plans could fit into that?"
Of the Penn Praxis project, DiCicco said, "This is one of those rare cases where the masses actually created the process and made it work."
Read more about the plan at http://go.philly.com/planphillyEndText