Harris Steinberg

is executive director of PennPraxis and led the year-long public planning process for the Central Delaware Advisory Group

Mayor Nutter's decision, announced this week, to combine the city's commerce and planning functions under one deputy mayor is an auspicious move. With the hiring of Andy Altman, a planner who is a veteran of Los Angeles, Oakland and Washington, as both commerce director and deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Philadelphia at last has the chance to enter the big leagues.

Grown-up cities

can

do planning and economic development hand in hand. The two realms are not mutually exclusive. This notion is not new - but it

is

novel for the Philadelphia of today.

For decades, we've been stymied by leadership that saw planning as an obstacle, not an asset, in cutting deals for development. This ignored the experience of comeback cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington - not to mention our own past. Only a few decades ago, Philadelphia was a model for planning for growth and setting rules for development, while preserving, respecting and enhancing our own sense of self as a city.

In the interim, unfortunate development - such as the world's only waterfront Wal-Mart - went up on the Delaware River, and we inherited acres of surface parking lots and structured garages, the legacy of failed mega-projects such as the Disney Quest hole at Eighth and Market Streets. All done without a vision or plan.

The mantra was that any development was good development - a sign of both desperation and lack of sophistication. We got away with it because, by charter, city planning in Philadelphia is only

advisory

to the mayor and council, with no jurisdictional power.

For years, the indelicate hand of commerce ruled. The Zoning Board of Adjustment capriciously meted out variances on a deal-by-deal basis - littering the landscape for generations to come. Any who objected were told that if we hindered development, the city would close shop. Planners were sidelined.

This seems slated to change.

The Nutter team has smartly nested, under one experienced deputy mayor, numerous city agencies and functions that touch on physical planning and economic growth: commerce, zoning, historical, art, housing, licenses and inspections, and more. The curtain of deal-making and myopic city-asset management is swept aside, allowing the clear light of smart growth, sound planning and economic development to shine.

These moves could help city and region:

Create a thoughtful, sensible, comprehensive 21st-century plan and modernized zoning code that reflect Philadelphia's economic potential.

Establish clear, consistent rules for development that provide predictability for developers while protecting the public good.

Capitalize on regional assets, such as our extensive mass transportation system to focus development and promote sustainable, mixed-use, transit-oriented development.

Unlock the potential of our educational institutions and medical centers as anchors for neighborhood reinvestment and revitalization.

Protect historical assets, incorporating them into development in a way that respects the past and builds an integrated future.

Attract investment from developers who understand the relationship between quality public spaces, urban design and economic return.

Build a creative knowledge economy that attracts and retains an educated workforce.

Ensure that our riverfronts are integrated into our communities with sound ecological development practices, public waterfront access and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

These would be big changes for Philadelphia, especially combined with the appointment of progressive PennDOT official Rina Cutler as deputy mayor for transportation and infrastructure. It's easier now to envision our city again becoming a national leader that is both planning and implementing in the public interest.

During the next administration, we can hope for the continued growth of our neighborhoods and business district, as well as a rejuvenated Benjamin Franklin Parkway and riverfronts. It's our responsibility to hold the Nutter team to this promise and help to achieve it. We have every reason to believe that Philadelphia's best days are ahead of us.