Waterfront study steps on some toes

Representatives of longshoremen say officials emphasize recreation over the industrial side of riverfront life.

City planners say redevelopment invariably falters unless stakeholders agree to "buy in." It's not the public's pocketbook they are after; it's the more precious commodities: hearts and minds.

As the 45-member Central Delaware Waterfront Advisory Group presses forward with its study for a revamped Philadelphia waterfront on the seven-mile stretch from Allegheny to Oregon Avenues, the $1.6 million study, funded by the William Penn Foundation, is scheduled to be completed next year. The development itself will take much longer.

If there is progress amid a sense of urgency, there are some hard feelings developing, too.

Tempers flared in an 18th-floor Planning Commission conference room yesterday when representatives of longshoremen, who embrace the Delaware River as an industrial employer, threw verbal brickbats at advisory group members they perceived as pursuing an agenda that would emphasize public access and recreational uses over the workingman's practical needs.

Harris Steinberg, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Praxis Design Group, the consultancy overseeing public participation in the planning process, was in the middle of saying the group's work in choosing its nine-member steering committee had "gone smoothly" when Ed Kirlin of the Pennsport Civic Association piped up with a feisty challenge that startled the 100 participants and observers in the room.

"It did not go smoothly!" Kirlin insisted.

The heart of his gripe: The steering committee lacks a member from Pennsport's civic association (although it does, as required by law, have a representative from another civic group in the southern tier of the affected area). Members were selected according to a complicated formula laid out in Mayor Street's Oct. 12 executive order establishing the group.

Kirlin's jibe triggered a flurry of other criticisms from relatives of stevedores, union officials, and a shipping-line representative.

"I'm the son and grandson of a longshoreman," said lawyer Henry Lewandowski III, who urged the group to reopen the steering committee selection process and add a Pennsport rep.

Acknowledging the value of putting the planning process "on a fast track," Jim Paylor, vice president of the International Longshoremen's Association, said his members felt "we've been brought into the game a little late."

"We value your input. We need your involvement... . We're all coming from very different places and there are a lot of tensions in the air," Steinberg said, urging participants not to overemphasize the importance of the steering committee because all of the group's meetings would be open for public input.

Responding to statements from several participants who said that the Internet was not the best way to circulate information among older residents, and that meetings in the weeks before Christmas were inopportune, Steinberg promised to add meetings in January and later arranged to deliver mimeographed flyers to the civic groups for distribution at community centers. The flyers repeat the announcement of public meetings on Dec. 11, 13 and 14. More information is available on the group's Web site, www.planphilly.com.

Group member Varsovia Fernandez, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said every civic engagement process was accompanied by birth pangs in which some groups initially feel shut out because the leadership seems not to have started at the grass roots.

"The city has the authority to start the process. The neighborhoods don't," she said. "But we need to bring it back down [to the community] so that it comes back up."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.