Forum shows urban planning not priority in mayor's race

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Mayoral candidates (from right) Michael Nutter, Dwight Evans and Chaka Fattah address a crowd of about 400, mostly design professionals, on urban planning issues during a forum at the Free Library.

This was supposed to be the year in which urban planning took center stage as an issue in Philadelphia politics, along with crime and schools. But if last night's mayoral forum on urban design was any indication, the subject is still stuck with a bit role in the campaign.

Only three of the six major candidates took part in the low-key event at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, attended by nearly 400 people. Still, that was a better showing than four years ago, when Republican candidate Sam Katz was forced at a similar event to debate an understudy dispatched at the last moment by Mayor Street.

While the three participating candidates - U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, State Rep. Dwight Evans, and former City Councilman Michael Nutter - all agreed that Philadelphia needs to rejuvenate its dysfunctional planning and zoning agencies, their proposals were largely about tinkering with the existing system. And when asked to name a signature initiative that could match the scope of Richardson Dilworth's blueprint for reviving Society Hill or John Street's anti-blight strategy, none ventured a vision.

"If I had to rank priorities, I'd start with police stations and rec centers," Evans candidly told the audience.

Fattah was even more blunt: "I'm interested in rebuilding the lives of people and not just the skyline," he said.

The event was most interesting for the sharply contrasting positions staked out by Fattah and Nutter. In almost every answer, Fattah turned the conversation from planning to social issues.

He said his focus would be on expanding programs for the city's poor, rather than courting new development to be enjoyed by the wealthy.

"Most people in this room will not have their lives fundamentally changed by the next mayor," Fattah told the audience, which was dominated by white, middle-class design professionals.

Nutter, in contrast, suggested that planning was not just an issue for the well-to-do.

He argued that strong urban-planning policies were essential to expanding the city's job base and would help the city's poor far more than government antipoverty programs. If Philadelphia hopes to compete with other cities for taxpaying residents and businesses, he argued, it needs a modern, professionally run planning department.

The three also debated the merits and means of eliminating City Council's cherished pocket veto, which allows members to scuttle initiatives in their home districts. Both Fattah and Evans listed the so-called councilmanic prerogative as the top impediment to good planning.

After the end of the planning discussion - sponsored by a coalition of design, preservation, planning and architecture groups - the three candidates rushed to the next forum, organized by the Urban League at the National Constitution Center, where they were joined by Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and Republican candidate Al Taubenberger. The audience of about 200, made up largely of African American professionals, was concerned about how to lure businesses to the city, nurture minority-owned businesses, encourage home ownership, and improve the education system.

Audience members also discussed how to enhance public safety, and the candidates largely stuck to previously stated positions.

Democratic candidate Tom Knox did not attend either forum.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

Inquirer senior writer Larry Eichel contributed to this article.