opinion

Changing Skyline | Welcome, welcome, city planners

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Friday, April 13, 2007, 2:29 AM

The South Street Bridge project. Designed without effective planning by Mayor Street's administration, it doesn't make pedestrians feel comfortable, and could discourage fringe development.

If you notice groups of people lingering on Philadelphia's street corners in the next few days, methodically measuring the width of the sidewalks or counting the lunchtime population in LOVE Park, please - do not call Homeland Security. It's probably just city planners at work. Starting tomorrow, 6,000 professionals will descend for the American Planning Association's annual convention.

Their penchant for focused observation may strike some here as novel because Philadelphia hasn't seen many of their kind in the last 15 years. Planning became a dirty word in the Rendell years, when Let's-Make-a-Deal became the city's rallying cry. Planning remains undervalued to this day.

But with the city in the throes of an up-for-grabs mayoral race, the lack of meaningful planning has finally become a fit subject for public discussion. The issue merited its own candidates' forum Monday night. It's true that only three of the six major contenders showed up, and none was willing to advance anything resembling a signature planning vision. But at least they agreed that planning should inform the Zoning Board of Adjustment's decision-making.

The arrival of a national army of city planners couldn't have come at a better time. Many panelists at the convention, which is meeting here for the first time, hail from the booming Western cities of Denver, Seattle, San Diego and Portland, where systematic and sustained city planning has transformed silent downtowns and tawdry skid rows into thriving residential and cultural districts.

In fact, none of these downtowns can yet match Center City for authenticity and vitality. But they're gaining on us. That should concern Philadelphians because Americans increasingly choose their hometowns for the quality of life they offer, and not merely the address of their employers.

If Philadelphia expects to compete with them to lure new taxpaying residents, it's going to have to work harder to soften the rough edges of daily life in this old industrial town. Schools, parks, transit, parking, entertainment and retail all need to keep pace with today's expectations. In short, the city needs to plan for growth.

But to hear a candidate like U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah talk, planning is just a niche issue for the elite. At Monday's event - also attended by State Rep. Dwight Evans and former City Councilman Michael Nutter - Fattah repeatedly told the crowd at the Free Library that he ranked planning lower on his agenda than the expansion of affordable housing and education programs. "I'm interested in rebuilding the lives of people and not just the skyline," he said.

"It's not just about the Comcast tower," Fattah added a moment later, to be sure no one missed his point.

Those statements alone don't make Fattah anti-planning, yet the emphasis is troubling. One wonders where he would get the tax revenue to pay for his worthy programs without vigorous downtown construction. Fattah's attitude recalls John Street's original campaign assertion that the neighborhoods merited more attention than Center City. Street followed through by proposing his neighborhood anti-blight program, which replaced crumbling buildings with fenced grassy lots.

Trouble was, there was no plan for what to do next with all those scattered lots. In the end, it was the spillover from Center City's condo boom that brought investment to neighborhoods outside Philadelphia's core.

Yet, when skyscrapers began permeating places like Northern Liberties and Fairmount, the city was unprepared. Fearing the effects of high-rises on their narrow streets, neighborhood groups scrambled to commission their own planning studies, often at their own expense.

The result is what Anthony Sorrentino, one of the convention's local organizers, calls the "privatization of planning." Dozens of private entities, including Sorrentino's own employer, the University of Pennsylvania, now march to their own geographically limited master plans. Such individualized agendas, with their clearly drawn borders, do not make for a livable city.

Fattah may misunderstand what city planners do. They don't merely concoct expensive schemes, like burying I-95 along the Delaware, although that project would benefit the whole city. The role of city planners has changed since the days of master builder Edmund Bacon in the 1960s and '70s, partly because the federal government no longer underwrites urban-renewal mega-projects. Today, city planners also work on a more intimate scale.

It helps to think of planners as the stewards of urban values. In Philadelphia's case, that means defending the city's traditional urbanism, pedestrian-friendly streets, and lively mix of uses. One of the disappointments of the Street administration is that his planners didn't fight to ensure those values were incorporated into important civic designs, like the South Street Bridge and the expanded Convention Center. Neither project does enough to make pedestrians feel comfortable, and as a result each could discourage future development on its fringes.

Although Fattah argues that planning mainly benefits the affluent, it's the poor who need planning most. One false move can tear apart a fragile neighborhood. City planners can help residents keep their commercial corridors viable, or find ways to reuse historic buildings. And when development comes, they can make sure it fits sensitively into the existing fabric.

Perhaps the problem is terminology. City planning sounds so coldly bureaucratic. If the chief planner were called "Advocate for City Life," maybe politicians would embrace the subject with more enthusiasm.

There's a reason so many visiting planners will be taking a magnifying glass to Philadelphia's successful public spaces to figure out what works:

If you're going to advocate for city life, you need to start by focusing on the small stuff.

Changing Skyline |

Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/skyline.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 214-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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