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A King in the wings

Philadelphia needs one to achieve the longtime dream of covering I-95 where it slices through Center City. Do that, and watch the boom begin.

Ross Brightwell envisions park space, an amphitheater or maybe even a roller coaster over a covered stretch of Interstate 95. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff)
Ross Brightwell envisions park space, an amphitheater or maybe even a roller coaster over a covered stretch of Interstate 95. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff)Read more

IT'S HARD FOR ME to not like Ross Brightwell - part dreamer, part engaged citizen, part pain in the ass.

The thing about Brightwell - his snowy hair and beard give him the appearance of a happy elf - is that he's not a pain in the ass on his own behalf. The Pittsburgh native is in love with his adopted Philadelphia and his belief that it can be so much better than it is.

Decades ago, Pittsburgh, led by someone named King Mellon, decided its future did not lie with smokestack industries that provided wealth but also provided unbreathable air. Over time, Pittsburgh got clean and reinvented itself.

Brightwell, 66, is a fountain of creativity, but his One Big Idea is not original to him. It has been heard in many public forums and finds enthusiasm everywhere - except in City Hall, for some reason:


It's amazing it wasn't done when the damn thing was built, and it's amazing it hasn't been done since. If you've been around awhile, you know Penn's Landing has had many master plans that are civic treadmills. You keep moving but you never get anywhere.

The latest, a mini master plan ordered up a few months back by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., would cover one block over I-95, between Walnut and Chestnut. Maybe it'll be the tiny acorn that grows a mighty oak. Or maybe it will be the planned-but-never-built aerial tramway over the Delaware.

Here's another tidbit: Center City's I-95 portion is scheduled for a federal overhaul around 2040, with engineering to begin sometime around 2020. This means Philly has a golden opportunity - right now - to develop and push a plan with Democrats holding the Senate and the White House. This requires Mayor Nutter to go bold and stop spinning his wheels with bike lanes and sugary drinks and oppressive tobacco taxes. Bold as in pain-in-the-ass Brightwell.

Never married ("I love girls" too much, he says), Brightwell has a master's in public affairs from Indiana University of Pennsylvania; was an Army captain from 1969 to '78, serving in Texas and Germany; was operations director of two Saudi maintenance companies before developing a plan for upgrading the Chestnut Street Business District.

Let's start with the last, Chestnut Street.

Chestnut Street and Walnut Street and similar associations were supplanted by the Center City District, which resulted from the vision and energy of two developers, the late Willard Rouse and Ron Rubin.

They saw Center City on the skids and the city unwilling or unable to stop the slide. They persuaded Center City businesses to accept a voluntary 6 percent tax surcharge - and CCD helped rescue Center City.

In the view of Brightwell and others, covering I-95 where it slices through Center City has two immediate benefits: It connects the people with the river, and creates a huge, blank canvas where the city - businesses and developers, anyway - can paint any portrait they want.

Is connection with the river, water, important? "That's why people go down the Shore," says Brightwell, also pointing to how Chicago and Baltimore used their waterfronts to drive development.

What to do with the massive space? Listen to a few of Brightwell's ideas:

A conservatory and aviary, a sculpture garden, an amphitheater, ice- and roller-skating rinks and a skateboard park - all under glass; athletic fields, the world's biggest enclosed merry-go-round and - the killer app - a roller coaster swooshing along Front Street.

That's land. For the river, rehabilitate the SS United States, the USS Olympia and the USS Becuna, bring in an aircraft carrier to match the USS New Jersey, and much more.

He has other ideas and other people have their own ideas, but nothing will happen without leadership.

In Pittsburgh, Mellon Bank's King Mellon (that was his name) gathered the movers and shakers together at the Allegheny Club to decide the future of Pittsburgh. They found the required funds.

Does Philadelphia have a King in the wings? We need one.

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky