Changing Skyline: The next mayor and city development

The Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk. With the area undergoing a frenzy of activity, a watchdog group urges a Schuylkill master plan. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

Three words that peppered the 2007 mayoral campaign: Planning. Zoning. Waterfront.

Three words that hardly have been mentioned in the current mayoral campaign: Planning. Zoning. Waterfront.

You could argue that the lack of serious debate on these formerly hot topics signals that Mayor Nutter has successfully dealt with the issues, so now we're moving on. Or, you could take the radio silence as a warning. It's easy to imagine Philadelphia's next mayor falling back into the bad old ways, where a campaign donation buys a zoning variance, planning decisions are made behind closed doors, and cars rule.

Nutter has easily been the most progressive, planning-friendly mayor since the days of Richardson Dilworth and Edmund Bacon. His administration has overseen structural reforms that put a halt to years of destructive pay-to-play and dragged City Hall into the modern age of governance. Nutter hired qualified people, embraced smart urbanist thinking, empowered the oversight commissions, and engaged the public in big decisions.

The list of his accomplishments goes on and on: A new zoning code. The Delaware waterfront master plan. A citywide master plan. Property-tax reform. New parks. New bike lanes. He even can claim some credit for the nearly 4,000 new rowhouses and apartment units built since he took office.

Yet, for almost every achievement, there are asterisks.

* Follow-through on the plans' recommendations has been glacial. Six years after vowing to green the city's asphalt school yards, the administration has completed just two schools. Despite passing a new zoning code, the administration has been unable to put it to real use because old zoning maps are still in force in many neighborhoods.

* Nutter's high-minded talk about urban design principles is often out of sync with the results. The sole private development approved under the Delaware waterfront master plan was allowed to violate one of its core principles - the requirement that the ground floors of buildings should be activated with retail and public uses. Garage-fronted rowhouses also remain common, despite rules against them.

* Nutter's record on historic preservation has been abysmal. He will forever be remembered as the mayor who sold out the Boyd Theatre, the city's last example of Hollywood's golden age.

* Though the development process is now squeaky clean, City Hall's mind-set is still tipped in favor of big developers. How else to explain the Planning Commission's passivity in the face of car-friendly proposals from Children's Hospital for its new Schuylkill campus and from Drexel/Wexford for the University City High School site?

Because Nutter's record has been subject to so little meaningful discussion in this campaign, it's hard to gauge how the candidates might handle similar issues.

The Design Advocacy Group, an independent citizen watchdog, is so concerned about maintaining what Nutter started it has issued a white paper on planning and urban design for the next mayor. While applauding the recent gains, it warns "there remain structural problems that could, in the next administration, erode the progress that has been made."

The nine-page document itemizes the administration's successes and failings and concludes with several policy recommendations for the next mayor.

DAG, as the group is known, has already proved itself influential. The white paper it prepared for the 2007 campaign provided Nutter with a ready-made policy agenda that helped him win the hearts and votes of the city's good-government types.

Nutter returned the favor by embracing DAG's agenda and stocking his administration with its members, most notably Alan Greenberger, an accomplished architect who became deputy mayor for planning and commerce. DAG is hoping this paper will have a similar impact this year. But it's going to be a harder sell.

The problem is that it is easier to champion reform when the system is rotten, as it was under former Mayor John F. Street. Nutter, along with Deputy Mayors Greenberger, Michael DiBerardinis, and Rina Cutler, have changed the paradigm so completely the conversation now is really about polishing the rough edges.

DAG's white paper wisely advises the next mayor to focus on the city's other waterfront, the Schuylkill, where there is rapid development but no master plan. It also entreats the city to stiffen its spine when negotiating the design details of big developments, such as the Gallery renovation. It ends by calling for the new administration to come up with a serious housing policy - an excellent and necessary idea.

What's really needed, though, is an attention-getting signature planning goal the next mayor can embrace. For Nutter, it was the intersection of planning reform, sustainability, and the Delaware waterfront.

Today, the time is right for rethinking the property tax abatement for new housing.

The abatement is directly responsible for the frenzy of construction that has transformed neighborhoods such as Graduate Hospital and Fishtown, but it's a crude tool. Some neighborhoods have been overwhelmed by new housing, while others have been ignored. In the mad scramble for development sites, builders have leveled dozens of old churches.

Why doesn't the city just fine-tune the abatement to encourage specific policy goals, such as investment in struggling neighborhoods and preservation? Unfortunately, the state's "uniformity clause" requires that the same abatement must be available to everyone.

But now the door to change has been opened a crack. Brandywine Realty's Jerry Sweeney, who specializes in office development, and Paul Levy, head of the Center City District, have launched a campaign to relax the uniformity clause so commercial property can be taxed at a higher rate than residential. That's not because they're altruistic, but because they want the extra revenue used to lower the city's wage tax.

Lowering business taxes, they believe, would make the city more attractive as a corporate location and ultimately bring more tenants to people such as Sweeney. But if we're going to help office developers, Philadelphia may as well use the opportunity to improve the flawed abatement as a basis for a new housing policy.

Now there's a signature project for the next mayor.


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