Commentary: Democracy and optimism transform Philadelphia

By Carl Dranoff

Philadelphia has gained its rightful place as a national model of urban renewal, and the proof is all around us.

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It is in our skyline punctuated by Liberty Place and the Comcast Center. It's along corridors such as the Avenue of the Arts, one of the most successful catalysts for economic growth in the United States. It winds through the Schuylkill River Trail, voted the best urban trail in America. And it's in the $6.7 billion of new development underway throughout the city.

How did Philadelphia redefine itself from a quaint, historic city of neighborhoods, hobbled by industrial abandonment, into America's first World Heritage City, akin to Paris, Rome, Cairo, and Quebec?

This week, 3,000 members of the Urban Land Institute convene in Philadelphia to discover the secret to our city's transformation. It's been 20 years since their last meeting here, and in the two decades since, we Philadelphians have reimagined our skyline, recaptured our waterfronts, and realized the arts as an economic engine.

The answer to "how" comes down to two words: democracy and optimism.

In the city where American independence was declared and our spirit of innovation is balanced with a penchant for collaboration, city planning is hotly debated in boardrooms and gastropubs, in barbershops and galleries, in headlines and on the air. The citizens of Philadelphia certainly make their voices heard.

Perhaps the greatest Philadelphia planning debate of the 20th century was whether or not to break the gentleman's agreement not to build anything higher than William Penn's hat atop City Hall. With a kind of revolutionary optimism, the late Bill Rouse, founder of Liberty Property Trust, broke the mold in 1988 with One Liberty Place. Detractors warned that the 61-story tower would destroy our beloved, quaint streetscape. Instead, it won the applause of Philadelphians, who marveled at how the skyscraper and smaller buildings melded to give us a new identity and renewed sense of optimism.

Just five years later, then-Mayor Edward G. Rendell strongly advocated a cultural corridor anchored by a regional performing arts center akin to Lincoln Center. His goal was to bring new life and energy to a desolate South Broad Street. Skeptics said the idea was a lark and would never bring the revenue predicted. Cultural leaders saw it as a potential threat. A healthy public debate ensued.

Rendell, the quintessential optimist and statesman, enlisted supporters such as Sidney Kimmel and the William Penn Foundation. Today the Avenue of the Arts generates 3,800 jobs, $157 million in revenues, and $40 million in local and state tax dollars annually.

Just as important, it is a desirable, new neighborhood. My company was the first to develop luxury residential living at Symphony House, 777 S. Broad, SouthStar Lofts, and soon the SLS Hotel and Residences. And now the arts corridor will stretch to Broad and Washington with several mega-, mixed-use projects at that intersection.

Today's Philadelphia is a testament to the optimists. Its renaissance has been made possible by architects, developers, and funders whose imaginations set off major evolutions. It happened by way of a democratic process hashed out in the public eye by city planners and civic leaders, and spurred on by elected officials who bravely eschewed criticism to secure public investments.

We're not done yet.

Mixed-use projects are underway to put the "market" back on Market Street. Innovation neighborhoods are breaking ground in University City, and the recently announced Schuylkill Yards is being planned as a catalyst for social progress. Commercial development is underway on the wildly popular Schuylkill River Trail, where we are welcoming empty nesters back to the city at One Riverside. On top of that, the Urban Land Institute has called the Navy Yard renewal "one of the most successful office/industrial master-planned redevelopments in U.S. history."

It hasn't been easy, but optimism is contagious.

How do I know that? Just take a look at the skyline. There are more cranes dotting it than ever in our history, and many are taller than William Penn's hat.

Carl Dranoff is the president and founder of Dranoff Properties. cdranoff@dranoffproperties.com