Philadelphia goes to Harvard

Having worked as the Inquirer’s architecture critic for a decade, I knew that the election of Mayor Nutter in 2007 had freed Philadelphia’s planners from the shackles imposed by the two previous administrations. Over the last four years, the department has been on a creative tear that has resulted in a string of major planning reports. But I didn’t understand how those plans added up to something special until I arrived at Harvard this fall for a Loeb Fellowship.

I was comparing notes with another Loeb, Anne-Marie Lubenau, and she couldn’t stop gushing about Philadelphia’s planning accomplishments. As the former head of Pittsburgh’s Community Design Center – and a Philadelphia native – she had been following the city’s progress from afar. She was deeply impressed with how Philadelphia’s design advocates, foundations, citizen activists and media had managed to get urban design on the political radar in the 2007 campaign. Nutter embraced their ideas to become a powerful advocate for improved planning and zoning.  “Good leadership can make a difference,” she told me.  “What Philadelphia has accomplished is nothing short of remarkable.”

Philadelphia? Remarkable?

After taking a moment to absorb this statement, an idea began take shape:  Let’s put on a panel about Philadelphia’s planning accomplishments.  And, while we’re at it, let’s invite the mayor, Planning Director Alan Greenberger and other key players to talk about planning at Harvard’s design school.  

All the stars aligned yesterday for the event, titled “The Philadelphia Story: Planning. Politics. Reality.”  Despite the early morning confrontation with Occupy Philadelphia, Nutter and Greenberger made it to Cambridge for the two-hour conversation at the design school’s Gund Hall. They were joined by PennPraxis’ Harris Steinberg, who has been a strong, independent voice for urban design, and the Water Department’s Glen Abrams, an architect of its innovative stormwater management strategy.

Listening to speakers (while simultaneously moderating the discussion) brought me back to the bad-old days when pay-to-play and transactional deal-making were rife in the city. Philadelphia paid a heavy price for the policy inertia that resulted from patronage politics. While other cities were busy tearing down highways and building new neighborhoods, Philadelphia’s allowed its beautiful Delaware waterfront to be used for parking cars. Because of that reputation for corruption and “squirrelly zoning,” Greenberger told the audience, Philadelphia was only one of the nation’s top five cities that failed to attract any national-name developers during the boom years. The new zoning code - surely one of the Nutter Administration’s big accomplishments - should make the city a more inviting place to build.

Nutter, who was apparently operating on very little sleep because of the Dilworth Plaza confrontation, admitted he came into office not knowing much about urban design, but still hoping to change the development culture. The law limiting campaign contributions to Philadelphia officials, which he helped to enact, was an important step.  “It’s not about who you know any more,” said Nutter, who was at Harvard for a mayors' conference.

Of course, the seeds of change were planted long before he came into office by groups like PennPraxis, a non-profit design consultant housed at the University of Pennsylvania’s design school. As its first project, PennPraxis took on the failed Delaware waterfront, founding director Harris Steinberg recalled yesterday. His group organized hundreds of Philadelphians to produce a civic vision for the waterfront, and that experience encouraged them to demand more policy-driven government. The city’s new waterfront masterplan would never have come into being without PennPraxis’ work.

So many plans have been produced in the last four years that it’s sometimes hard to understand how they fit together So it was a revelation when Glen Abrams produced a single slide that explained the relationships. It depicted the reports as planets revolving around – what else? – the city's ambitious Greenworks sustainability plan. Together with Parks and Rec, the department also developed another plan, Green2015, to create a green park in every neighborhood – 500 acres all told. Along with greening streets and other hard surfaces, it will help the city to avoid spending $10 billion on a network of pipes, which would be a lot money down the drain.

I agree with Anne-Marie that Nutter’s leadership has made a difference. At the same time, I can’t help but notice that there’s still a disconnect between the administration’s aspirations and the reality on the ground. There’s a reason we included that word in the event’s title.  As I observed during the yesterday’s discussion, it’s tragic that the first building to go up the waterfront since the master plan’s adoption will be Sugarhouse’s seven-story parking garage. The new zoning code didn’t manage to put a stake in the heart of council’s pocket veto, the notorious councilmanic prerogative, either.

For all the bold new plans, the administration is sometimes blind to the most important projects. Take the first question from the audience: “What’s it going to take to tear down I-95?” asked Aaron Naparstek, founder of Streetsblog, and a fellow Loeb.

Nutter said his goal was institutionalize the cultural shift in City Hall so that Philadelphia can continue to pursue ambitious planning thinking long after his term is over.  Nothing would be more ambitious that figuring out how to deal with I-95.