WE'RE JUST A FEW short weeks away from a new chapter in the history of this city, one that has been written in part by citizens.

And no, I'm not talking about the mayoral election, but an event that comes a week later: the unveiling of a new vision for the Delaware River waterfront.

Editorial writers like me throw around terms like "new chapter in the city's history" frequently, a function that combines wishful thinking, civic cheerleading and blind faith.

But let me tell you why this one is different, and why it really does have the potential to put us on an entirely new road to the future.

It's a vision that represents 12 months of work by the collective efforts of Harris Steinberg, public officials and 4,000 citizens who met, yelled, argued and created a bold mandate for how we should think about the waterfront, the city - and ourselves.

The target of their work is a seven-mile stretch of the Delaware riverfront, from Allegheny to Oregon. It's not pleasant - 60 percent has been certified as blighted - not pretty and less than 4 percent of it is accessible to the public. It's probably one of the few major urban waterfronts left in the country - maybe the world - that's as raw as it is.

The riverfront planning achievements to date include a Dave & Buster's on one end, and a sprawl of big concrete retail boxes on the other. Lately, gated housing towers have begun punctuating this landscape like the residential equivalents of Wal-Marts. Two casinos have also been approved for this bleak, dehumanizing landscape.

IN FACT, WE can thank the casinos for encouraging a "wait a minute" moment for the waterfront. The pressure from neighborhood groups opposing the casinos drove City Councilman Frank DiCicco and Mayor Street to say, "Wait a minute, maybe we need to think about this whole waterfront."

Soon after, Steinberg, who directs Penn Praxis, the public design effort at Penn, began leading walking tours, setting up advisory groups and having countless neighborhood meetings. In between the yelling, they began to dream.

I've been a fan of Steinberg for a while; he and the paper co-sponsored a public forum on casino design. His academic credentials are impeccable, but I really started to take notice because whenever he talks about cities and planning, he talks about people and the importance of human-scale design. In fact, if the People Paper had an official architect and planner, he'd be it.

I'm also a fan of the vision he'll present to the public on Nov. 14. It's not a plan as much as a blueprint for extending William Penn's original plan for the city: development parcels and public squares along a network of parallel streets, designed to accommodate both community interaction and public property.

Grid is good

One of the big ideas is extending the existing grid of the city's streets all the way to the water. This will reconnect the city to its waterfront in a way that was long ago amputated by I-95, and make those streets leading to the water walkable and accessible.

Another is lots of green space and trails. There is also plenty of real estate, but the "people" part of the plan is the most exciting.

It won't happen overnight - the vision is designed to evolve over a very long time. Consider it a recipe for a very tasty slow-cooked meal, one that allows you to add ingredients and adjust the spices as the thing builds.

Another adjective that has to be used for the plan is "dangerous."

It's dangerous because it flies in the face of the way this city does business - driven by deals with little concern for planning the big, long-term picture.

How do I know it's dangerous? Because I attended the planning commission meeting earlier this month where Steinberg unveiled an early glimpse of his vision to the commission and a large audience that included developers.

It's never pretty to watch how our civic sausage gets made, but this meeting was particularly ugly, and got even uglier when a few developers got up to blast the plan.

Michael Sklaroff, a real estate development attorney with Ballard Spahr, and chairman of the Historical Commission, had prepared a litany of criticisms. He criticized it for being from academia (tell that to the folks from the river wards who showed up at the meetings), and for not being "grounded in reality." (Ask those same river-wards people what they think of the "reality" of casinos.) The essense of Sklaroff's criticism was that it wasn't the way things are done around here. His words - and those of Craig Schelter, who also criticized it - were like the sound of the crumbling of the old-school ways.

Sklaroff maintains that "even gated communities can afford river access and river access need not be absolute to be effective and enjoyable." In other words, keep pressing your nose against the fence - maybe we'll let you see the water.

Sklaroff raised the stakes even higher when he said that he hoped that the planning commission, Steinberg and he could meet "away from the press."

That might be the most offensive thing I've heard any powerful person say. Not because I'm a member of the press, but because what it means is "I don't want any witnesses to what we're going to do."

THEM'S fighting words, a call to battle for every citizen who cares about how the city creates its future. Then again, that fight may not last long. After all, the Nov. 14 event is expected to attract 1,000 people, and after that, the vision is bound to attract many more.

Imagine: a big civic idea that gets people excited about the future, and the role they can play in shaping it. Make sure you show up on Nov. 14.

As an added incentive, we're giving away 100 T-shirts. The first 50 people who register for the meeting with the Daily News using the coupon below, and the first 50 to register online, will get a cool T-shirt inscribed with what I hope will become one of the mantras of this process: Grid is good.

Make that 99 - I'm going to send one to Michael Sklaroff. *

Sandra Shea is the editor of the editorial page.