Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Earni Young | In prince, activists find a peer

DURING THE TIME she headed Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, Patricia L. Smith was sometimes jokingly referred to as the city's "Blight Czarina." But yesterday, the humble urban policy wonk got to sit down with a future king.

Smith, who now works with The Reinvestment Fund, was among six members of Philadelphia's revitalization community invited to accompany Prince Charles on a special train to New York.

Prince Charles wanted to sit with them and chew the fat - so to speak - about urban revitalization and how the "built environment" interacts with arts to create more stable communities.

Anyone who has ever witnessed Smith's coolness under fire during turbulent City Council hearings knows she is not easily flustered. However, Smith admitted to a small moment of panic over what to wear on the trip to New York.

She chose "my grown-up outfit," a simple strawberry pink silk suit with matching scarf and heels.

But it wasn't Smith's looks that got her an audience with Prince Charles. Rather it was Smith's encyclopedic knowledge of the issues facing Philadelphia and other post-industrial cities around the world. On that subject, Smith the commoner and the British royal heir have shared passion.

"You can tell he's very passionate about the issues, not just the built environment, but how it can affect the quality of life for the people who live in the community," Smith said. "As a private citizen, he really sees his ability to bring people together to create partnerships, and put forth ideas that the government may not be in the position to act on because of the risk involved."

Smith said she was surprised at the depth of Prince Charles' knowledge. The prince easily held his own in a fluid conversation with a diverse group of academics and grass-roots community activists who have years grappling with abandonment, affordable housing, joblessness, financial support for the arts, and economic development, Smith said.

The group included Smith; music mogul-turned-community developer Kenny Gamble of Universal Homes; homeless advocate Sister Mary Scullion of Project Home; Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District; Kent McGuire, dean of education at Temple University; and Alan Berube, a Brookings Institution fellow. Also at the table were Hank Dittmar, CEO of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, and British Ambassador Sir David Manning.

They traveled in a historically restored rail car provided by Bennett Levin, a railroad buff and former city official.

So what did Prince Charles have to say about Philadelphia after a whirlwind two-day visit that included an elegant ball and a brief tour of Mantua and North Philadelphia to view the work of the city's Mural Arts Program?

Prince Charles did not comment specifically about Philadelphia, Smith said.

"He talked about the importance based on their work in the United Kingdom of having mixed-income communities and not warehousing the poor.

"He talked about the mistake of building concrete apartment blocks in Kingston and then wondering why no one wants to live in them.

"He talked of involving stakeholders in design and having a better community at the end of the day. In the states, we call it New Urbanism," Smith said.

Prince Charles is a vigorous supporter of the Congress for the New Urbanism's principles ofsmart growth and sustainable communities. In 1993, he used those principles to build the village of Poundbury on his duchy in Wales. Dittmar is chairman of the Chicago-based CNU, which is holding its 15th annual international conference in Philadelphia May 17-20.

"It's obvious the subject isn't something he's just pulled off a shelf for a prepared speech," Smith said of Prince Charles. "He was very attentive to what we had to say, and we were all pleased that he just sort of got it."

Unlike his boss, Dittmar spoke specifically about Philadelphia and the changes that have taken place under Mayor Street. Dittmar said he rented a car and drove around the city unrestricted by security and paparazzi.

"He told us he was absolutely amazed by the improvements since his last visit 10 years ago," said Smith, whose planning helped bring about much of the change.

Before the prince detrained in New York, Smith said, she and other members of the group thanked the prince for using his "unique position to shed light" on issues they consider to be of paramount importance.

"Oh, I can only do so much," the heir to the British throne modestly responded,

The Philadelphia crew returned home on the same elegant rail car and were served dinner catered by The Restaurant School, Smith said. *

Earni Young covers residential real estate in the city. E-mail her at younge@phillynews.com; for past columns, http://go.philly.com/young.

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