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A Civic Vision

Mayor Nutter's new planning requirement for developments comes at a crucial time for the central Delaware riverfront.

Artists' renderings of the revitalized Penns Landing
Artists' renderings of the revitalized Penns LandingRead more

On Tuesday evening, before an enthusiastic, packed house at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Mayor Nutter delivered on his promise to restore city planning to its vital place in Philadelphia's future. Heralding a break from the planning-by-deal-making days of the past, Nutter declared that all development projects start at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. He thus restored a powerful, rightful relationship between sound planning and strong economic development.

This message comes none too soon for the central Delaware riverfront - an at-risk area critical to the city's future. There's an opportunity here to redevelop the central Delaware riverfront, both as an active recreational amenity and a connected community. A revitalized waterfront would create a burst of energy for the entire city, allowing the expansion of Center City and river neighborhoods and attracting more residents, workers and visitors.

It's an opportunity that, like the waterfront itself, is at risk. Millions of square feet of new housing, entertainment and retail sites (including two 5,000-slot casinos) are being planned along the 7-mile stretch of the Delaware from Allegheny Avenue to Oregon Avenue without a coordinated strategy or plan. How these properties are built and how they are supported by public investments such as mass transit, parks, open spaces and pedestrian amenities will define the future of the riverfront for the next century.

There's a great deal of support for making the central Delaware a vibrant riverfront. In 2006-07, more than 5,000 Philadelphians partnered with PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, to create "A Civic Vision for the Central Delaware," a 30-year road map for the riverfront from Allegheny to Oregon (see: The plan received the 2008 National Charter Award from Congress for the New Urbanism.

The plan calls for:

Extending Philadelphia's street grid across I-95 to the river's edge to encourage public riverfront access;

Creating a pedestrian-friendly boulevard;

Building a continuous recreational trail;

Creating dedicated transit and bike lanes;

Ensuring a public riverfront park every half mile; and

Providing a 100-foot riverfront greenway for improved water quality and wildlife.

But turning this vision of a mixed-use, transit-oriented extension of Philadelphia to the river into reality requires concerted action.

Since the November 2007 release of the civic vision, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group (a consortium of 15 river-ward civic associations) has worked with PennPraxis to define concrete steps to redevelop the river. (Note: The two casinos as currently proposed, along with a plethora of other large-scale, automobile-dependent development proposals, do not meet the planning principles established in the civic vision.)

So the group has produced "An Action Plan for the Central Delaware: 2008-2018," a 10-step guide to developing the riverfront during the next 10 years. The action plan calls for a public investment strategy in streets, parks and mass transit that can support quality private development. Nutter's call Tuesday night for a master plan for the central Delaware is just the place to start. The plan also calls for the following immediate steps:

Re-form the Penn's Landing Corp. to make it an open, accountable and transparent waterfront manager;

Add an interim zoning overlay on the existing zoning code to set rules for riverfront public spaces, public access and parking that are consistent with the civic vision;

Commission a master plan for the central Delaware that will serve as the basis for long-term zoning controls;

Create public parks at Piers 11 North (Race Street), 53 South (Washington Avenue) and Festival Pier - all owned by the Penn's Landing Corp. and the city;

Turn Penn's Landing into a green public park;

Preserve the Belt Line railroad track median of Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard for transit and rail; and

Add key new streets to the official city plan to connect the city with the river.

We will present Nutter and his savvy deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Andy Altman, with an action plan for the central Delaware on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn's Landing. It's a road map for smart investment in Philadelphia's future.

Harris Steinberg is executive director of PennPraxis and led the yearlong public planning process for the Central Delaware Advisory Group