By Vern Anastasio
For the better part of 2006, hundreds of residents from across the city gathered in three separate town-hall style meetings to discuss responsible development, planning and zoning reform. At the core of the public's frustration with Philadelphia's development history was the lack of a comprehensive plan to guide community and waterfront development.
The consensus was that responsible community development should start, not end, with the community. Throughout the meetings, the general perception was that the foxes, often in the guise of real estate developers, ran the city's henhouse of real estate planning and development. On the Delaware Riverfront alone, there were plenty of examples to support this assertion.
Philadelphia's waterfront is a strange and uneven hodgepodge of big-box stores; isolated residential communities; little public water access; and rampant speculation by the secretive Penns Landing Corp., a quasigovernmental agency that I believe improperly received waterfront land from the city's Redevelopment Authority and whose existence should be terminated.
Out of our collective frustration, and guided by the principles of responsible urban planning, Penn Praxis (a public design effort at the University of Pennsylvania) launched an unprecedented attempt to engage the public, open a democratic dialogue, and begin to develop a plan for our waterfront that takes all stakeholders into consideration. Longshoremen, residents, commercial real estate owners, developers, heavy industry, and the tourist trade were all carefully considered by the Praxis process. And for the first time in a very long time, Philadelphia was trying to plan with the community instead of planning at it.
With details of the plan soon to come, Penn Praxis recently unveiled some highlights to the city's Planning Commission. Though not perfect, it embraces the 300-year-old tradition of William Penn's grid for Philadelphia and advocates an extension of the successful pattern of Center City. Among other items, it dared to suggest that portions of the riverfront could serve as the lungs of the East Coast's second largest city, with open green space, public access to the water, and beautiful vistas for residential leisure and recreational activities. In essence, Penn's dream of a "Greene Country Towne" could be realized along the Delaware River waterfront.
No sooner did the Praxis presentation end than another of Philadelphia's age-old traditions reared its ugly head: venomous opposition to bold, new ideas. Much of the opposition came from real estate developers who actually like the way things are currently done and take issue with a process that would require a comprehensive review of every proposed waterfront development.
Yes, developers want us to believe that we should perish the thought of a planning process that was not driven by the often narrow interests of real estate developers and the greedy politicians who regularly rely on their donations like an infant relies on his mother's milk. The people of Philadelphia should be so lucky.
The key to fixing a broken political system in Philadelphia is through the open, transparent process of turning real estate development in Philadelphia on its head. Starting with our waterfront will send a clear message that we the people will no longer be held hostage to the narrow-minded special interests that have consistently substituted short-term "growth" for long-term gain, whether they be developers, the building trades, casinos or their lawyers.
The opposition to this reasonable and responsible plan is very powerful. It will ultimately be the charge of the citizenry to get informed, educate our neighbors, and rally for a waterfront worthy of the people who live here. Philadelphia deserves nothing less.