Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Imagining the Future: Presentations

Scott Gabriel Knowles

Scott Gabriel Knowles, Assistant Professor of History at Drexel University, explained that his task was to introduce some historical background—bringing into the light some of the key players, and outlining some of the enduring conflicts that have animated the development of Philadelphia since World War II.

Knowles added that when we come to talk about urban planning it is important that we think about urban form as reflective of an ongoing set of arguments among powerful interests, each vying to shape the city to suit their unique goals and ideologies. The results may be material—a built city—but the processes are political. Parks, highways, and waterfronts take shape, are reshaped, or do not take shape at all as the results of powerful interests winning or losing. What is interesting is that the players, their methods of argument, and the settings for their clashes change over time. It is not as simple as tracing out cases of “big government” versus private developers. Alongside public sector and private sector actors we need to also be aware of creative, sometimes even improvised non-profit or “third sector” institutions and the roles they play. And yes urban planners, architects, and even social scientists have had loud voices in the urban planning debate, but this does not mean that “experts” run the show—with a city as diverse as Philadelphia we must consider the ways that so-called “non-experts” have demanded their chance to speak. Property owners, labor unions, church communities, neighborhood associations, preservationists, good-government groups, the mainstream and non-mainstream media to name just a few types, have all played significant roles in the ongoing urban planning debate. In the end the result is urban change, but the enduring question is: who gets to say? The speaker claimed that he would argue that while results matter—just as critical is the debate, is it democratic and open or closed and authoritarian? In the debate we measure the viability of our civic process, and even of ourselves as citizens.

Knowles then began a brief case study in the history of urban planning in Philadelphia, one involving Philadelphia’s second most famous planner (next to William Penn): Edmund Bacon. Edmund Bacon served as director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970. His was an iconoclastic, take-no-prisoners style, rooted in a faith that good, useful design combined with consistent boosterism could rally government, the private sector, and the public around his long-range plans for the city.

Bacon looked into his crystal ball in 1959 and in it he saw a vision of a city remade in time to host a 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair—an event that would necessarily take place alongside the national Bicentennial celebration of that year. He described his vision in an essay titled “Philadelphia in the Year 2009.” Knowles explained that he discovered the essay when doing research in 2006, and felt that it was not only a time capsule of sorts, but also an opportunity to talk about what had happened to the city over the past 50 years, and where it is today. He added that he was lucky to find a group of talented authors including Eugenie Birch, Gregory Heller, Guian McKee, and Harris Steinberg to write essays that would complement Bacon’s original essay—the book is titled Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City.

“Philadelphia in the Year 2009” builds its case on one powerful idea: a world’s fair could transform the city into a model of humane urbanism. Philadelphia emerged from World War II burdened by creaking infrastructure and a housing shortage, its Center City business district underperforming against rival cities. Deindustrialization was already noticeable by the mid-1950s. Residents were embarking for the suburbs at a steady clip, with the city falling by 1960 from third to fourth in population behind Los Angeles.

Among the many projects Bacon describes in the essay are the Delaware River Marina, “a magnet for visitors . . . the point of departure for the launches that take visitors to the Navy Yard for trips through aircraft carriers and cruisers, and a stop at Old Fort Mifflin.” Chestnut Street will be barred to automobile traffic, allowing “open-sided electric cars” to traverse this “Midway . . . [where] stores have removed their front windows and carry on outdoor activities.”

In Bacon’s vision, the banks of the Schuylkill River are redeveloped, as is the area north of the Spring Garden Bridge, for world’s fair buildings. Underground streets must be built to serve the parking terminal at Broad Street, with a moving sidewalk, and the East Market Center will “amalgamate the Pennsylvania and Reading commuter railroads into one system.” At the regional level, we can expect a metropolitan transportation authority that will integrate rail, subway, and bus lines, and an expressway system. All of these changes would be necessary to properly host the world in 1976—and if promoted effectively would turn on the tap of federal dollars, and private investment funds, necessary to make the vision a reality.

The Philadelphia World’s Fair idea, Bacon believed, could provide a shared goal, a focused way to complete the projects he wanted for the city. Market East, a Chestnut Street pedestrian mall, even the overhead tramways he imagined really pale in comparison, though, to his essay’s boldest claims. In 2009 Philadelphia will not have any bad neighborhoods, suburbanites will have moved back bringing their vitality and tax dollars with them, greenways will ring the city, transportation options will be rational and varied; the entire metropolis will reflect the best and brightest ideas that modern urban planning can deliver—the waterfronts are vital. Bacon’s predictions still astound with their self-confidence.

Edmund Bacon enjoyed support from the mayor’s office, and he worked closely with city development coordinator William Rafsky, and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. He also had close ties to the non-private development group the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation, and the architecture and planning professionals in the city. Postwar federal legislation enabled city officials for the first time to broadly exercise eminent domain powers, moving masses of residents and bulldozing sections of the city deemed to be “slums,” planning and building anew. Edmund Bacon’s Planning Commission was certainly of its time in this respect and forceful in its place, stirring up both wonder and backlash.

Skipping ahead—by 1967 the planning effort for the fair had yielded an extraordinary idea, a 4-mile -ong mega-structure that would provide a platform for the fairgrounds, built over the Pennsylvania Railroad’s rail yard on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. It was an ambitious idea, even a space-age idea, and one that would alter the city’s form dramatically if it were to succeed.

Knowles admitted that the events over the next four years would be hard to make up, if they were not true. The federal government’s Bicentennial planning commission rejected the mega-structure idea based on its cost (1.2 billion dollars at the height of the Vietnam War, or roughly double the city’s annual budget), but also on a lack of citizen participation, particularly minority neighborhood participation, in the planning process. A rival plan sprang up, under the direction of a community organizer named Catherine Sue Leslie, who brought to the planners an idea for a city-wide fair, where visitors would visit every neighborhood and experience in local community centers and libraries the remarkable racial and ethnic diversity of the city.

Catherine Sue Leslie’s idea was defeated in a racially-divided vote by the committee of the Fair’s planners, signaling the beginning of a season of resentment against the World’s Fair idea. The mega-structure idea was finally vetoed not long after, and as a mayoral race unfolded in 1971 the planners scrambled to find a neighborhood that would accept the fair.

The neighborhood of Byberry in the Far Northeast section of the city was suggested, but when local residents found out about the idea spontaneous protests broke out. Apparently afraid that the World’s Fair was going to create a huge publicly funded housing project for low-income and minority Philadelphians, Byberry residents spoke out. In an era when site decisions about housing projects routinely brought Philadelphians—white and black—into the streets, this was an outcome in part due to the failure of the planners to engage citizens in a meaningful way in the Fair’s planning. Not nearly all, but enough of Byberry resisted the fair long enough to force consideration of another site, this time a two-state idea, including the Port Richmond neighborhood, Petty’s Island in the Delaware River, the Camden, New Jersey waterfront, and Penn’s Landing. A remarkable plan for the site was begun by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, and Associates, and featured a 1,250 foot wide bridge connecting Philadelphia and Camden. Each of the four planned levels was a glass barrel-vault, with the lower two levels available for use for an interstate connector between Philadelphia and Camden, and the top two for residential and commercial development. The plan was rejected—too expensive and not enough community support.

Mustin Field and Fort Mifflin were both briefly discussed and dismissed as options, before a last-ditch effort with recently elected mayor Frank Rizzo’s strong support was proposed, a return to a failed 1966 Olympic bid location at Eastwick. In May of 1972, now with Richard Nixon in office, the federal commission voted to reject Eastwick as a suitable site, and Mayor Rizzo summarily folded the up the plans for a World’s Fair in Philadelphia. As the files were boxed up on a World’s Fair for Philadelphia, 1959 seemed long gone, and Edmund Bacon’s 2009 was even further away.

Ultimately, a planning strategy based on enthusiasm for a World’s Fair in Philadelphia led to a debacle. The Fair attempted a grand civic gesture but instead exposed deep rifts in the city’s multiple “renewal” constituencies, rifts that broke and flung the pieces of Bacon’s World’s Fair plan into disarray by the early 1970s.

Along the way, though, the World’s Fair planning process led to a raucous and democratic debate over some thorny questions. Most important were these two: first, could the planning and development elites of the city succeed in crafting the plans and raising the money necessary for the city to revitalize itself? Second, what role should citizens and neighborhoods play in planning, especially in racially and class-diverse cities? Traditional answers to these questions were re-examined in the 1960s and 1970s, and new answers emerged, giving way to an era in which the world’s fair was buried, big-ticket urban renewal programs were treated with suspicion, and “masterful” urban planning was forced to grapple at last with community-based solutions.

Knowles concluded by saying that since that time planning for the Delaware waterfront has gone on, and on, and on—involving many of the same conflicts and players just described.

Harris M. Steinberg

Harris M. Steinberg, Executive Director of PennPraxis, began by saying that he was asked to speak broadly about “vision.” To do this, he outlined two parts of his talk: first, the role of vision in the creation and ongoing development of Philadelphia, which will include the Central Delaware project, and second, provide some questions about the role of visioning in the future of the city as well as our obligation as a generation to constantly evolve that vision. To start, Steinberg presented Thomas Eakins’ painting, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, which he believes is symbolic of the role of people looking ahead and shaping the profession of the urban designer and our way of viewing the world and the landscape around us. Eakins himself was a visionary in his day who was shunned by the establishment.

The history of visionaries in Philadelphia, according to Steinberg, began in 1682-1683, with William Penn’s rational, Cartesian city plan to bring Enlightenment order to the New World. This plan – a grid of streets with five public squares – was closely based on utopian ideals. Penn’s notion of public space as exemplified by the public squares was a revolutionary idea in the history of public space. Steinberg asserted that it is very important to keep in mind that Penn’s plan is still very much in use today, as modern Philadelphians walk the same streets. Penn’s plan is a living document that helps define who we are as Philadelphians today.

Next, Steinberg highlighted how in 1868, the city of Philadelphia acquired 1,800 acres of land adjoining the Wissahickon Creek in Northwest Philadelphia, which was added to Fairmount Park to further protect the water supply – the creation of Fairmount Park itself in 1855 being a bold and visionary move. Together, the creation of extensive parkland that ran from the heart of the city to the northwestern boundary served to de-industrialize areas along the Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River while reshaping the landscape and protecting valuable natural resources. The ideals that shaped this plan sought to create a more livable, breathable, industrial city where man is in harmony with nature and industry is in balance with ecological systems.

Then Steinberg turned to Jacques Greber’s 1917 plan for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which was another example of how vision has played an important role in the development of contemporary Philadelphia. The speaker argued that visions such as Greber’s are instrumental in getting people to think beyond where they are today, how we shape public spaces, and the relationship between man and nature. Additionally, such visions allow for the examination of such ideas as the relationship between democracy, public space and culture and breed a discourse over who we are as Philadelphians.

The next visionary examined by Steinberg was Edmund Bacon. Bacon was a city planner and a master at selling his vision for the city at such places as the Better Philadelphia Exhibition of 1947, where he proposed significant change to post-World War II Philadelphia. The speaker argued that Bacon’s legacy is checkered, with such less successful examples as the Central Delaware portions of I-95 and I-676 along with the Gallery at Market East. However, Bacon also left the city with more positive models, such as the greenways of Society Hill, Pennypack Park, the Commuter Tunnel, and other parts of his vision that also came to fruition. Steinberg argued that Bacon’s example is a perfect illustration of how vision and legacy are joined.

The speaker then offered that the city has suffered from a lack of vision since the days of Ed Bacon. The world that recent generations have inherited since the Bacon era waned is one of development on a parcel-by-parcel basis through political deal-making. This is best exemplified by the repeated failures to develop Penn’s Landing and the infamous DisneyQuest hole at 8th and Market Streets. While Mayor Nutter has chosen to make city planning more central to how we shape our physical landscape, Steinberg warns of the many projects of the previous two administrations (Mayors Street and Rendell), which were driven more by a “development-at-any-cost” ethos as opposed to concerns for quality of life.

This latter development landscape was what the speaker was presented with four years ago when he was asked to lead a process of to develop a civic vision for the Central Delaware Riverfront. The riverfront, despite the city’s attempts to plan for and to develop it over a course of four decades, had become a loose collection of automobile dependent disparate parts. This was exemplified by the big box mega-stores in the southern sector; the breach of I-95 and Columbus Boulevard that separated the city from the river in the central section; and the remains of the industrial past along with gated communities along the river in the north.

In 2004, Pennsylvania’s Act 71 authorized the licensing and creation of slot machine casinos in the commonwealth. This impacted the Central Delaware as four of the five proposals for the two Philadelphia casino licenses included sites along the river. This added to already intense development pressures in the area that were driven in part by the city’s tax abatement program and easy credit in the years leading up to the Great Recession of 2008 . Many citizen groups were concerned about the impact of this development along the river and they lobbied for a more comprehensive planning process. This resulted in the development of a citizen-driven process which PennPraxis led from 2006 through 2008 – one that was values-based and informed by case studies and best planning practices. This form of planning stood in sharp contrast to Ed Bacon’s top-down planning approach. More than 4000 Philadelphians participated in the planning process for the Central Delaware.

Steinberg then showed a number of slides that envision the Delaware riverfront redeveloped using ideas of ecological planning and principles of sound urbanism, such as the Port Richmond rail yard, Girard Avenue interchange, Pulaski Park, Penn’s Landing, and the river view from New Jersey. Steinberg emphasized that the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware demonstrates the power of ideas in shaping the future of the city. The planning process raised questions such as: how does city planning relate to people’s lives, how we use public space and what is the relationship between government and the private sector in shaping the public realm?

Next, the speaker reminded the audience that vision does drive change and that the legacies of Bacon, Greber, and Penn are prime examples of the power of visioning. The Civic Vision for the Central Delaware has been impactful as well. Mayor Nutter has reformed the Penn’s Landing Corporation and replaced it with a more transparent management entity. The Central Delaware Advocacy Group has been created to provide public scrutiny over the implementation of the vision and early action projects such as the Race Street Pier park and a master planning process are currently underway – all tied to and reflecting the vision that was created based on extensive civic engagement. Therefore, Steinberg argued that it is very important to create visions, regardless of whether or not they are readily achievable, because they equip the public with a roadmap for the future.

Lastly, Steinberg posed several questions for the future of Philadelphia. In his newest book, Joel Kotkin projects that by 2050 there will be 100 million new Americans, of whom 20 million will live in cities. Given this, what will be Philadelphia’s share and how will the city incorporate these new people? Furthermore, what kind of Philadelphia do we want this to be and how will we attract these arrivals? Additionally, what is our obligation and opportunity to re-imagine the city? More broadly, what is the role of vision in imagining not only the future of Philadelphia but also our role in getting there? More specifically, how will the city deal with projects such as the future of I-95? Will it be rebuilt with many billions of dollars over the next twenty years and, if so, will it be rebuilt in as is or will we use this opportunity to turn the city into the next iteration of what we want Philadelphia to look like?

Craig Schelter

Craig Schelter, a principal of the consulting firm Schelter & Associates and Executive Director of the Development Workshop, began by asserting his belief that vision is an oversold notion unless a price tag is attached to it. He then explained that his purpose for the evening was to serve as the “voice of planning past,” as he has worked on waterfront development under many of the previous Philadelphia administrations, including Mayors Tate, Rizzo, Green, Goode, Rendell, Street, and now Michael Nutter. Schelter argued that one of the threads found throughout those administrations was that there were no villains–all of them were people trying to fulfill the wishes of their constituents.

Schelter believes that when a great vision is proposed, there are a number of factors that must be kept in mind. First, any design plan needs to account for the changing growth of Philadelphia. For example, in 1950, the city measured two million people, while in 2008 the census reported 1.4 million. While the prospects for growth are great, by and large the city is not growing. Without growth, which would provide no addition to the tax base, it will be impossible to afford the impressive visions.

Furthermore, there is an idea that such plans require coordinated state and federal funding, which is a problematic expectation. Schelter experienced this first hand during his days helping Ed Bacon design and build I-95. They realized that decisions such as ramps and coverage was entirely beholden upon the accessibility of state and federal funding. If funding dried up, or if the percentage of funding changed, the city would be unable to complete the project.

The speaker also noted how each successive mayoral administration wanted to put their own stamp on city planning, often changing or cancelling the previous agenda. Similarly, Schelter commented that recent years has seen a trend where the City Council has begun to act more independently from the Mayor’s Office. Furthermore, there has been an ongoing change in the nature of the business community. During his tenure working on the development of Penn’s Landing, he frequently worked with members of the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation (which later became the Penn’s Landing Corporation), whose board members were all CEO’s of organizations headquartered in Philadelphia. This allowed for a greater ease in coordination and decision-making due to their increased commitment to the city. Today, such organizations are often populated by non-Philadelphians who are, therefore, not as devoted to rapid change. Lastly, there has also been a changing nature of the voice of the community. In the speaker’s opinion, this voice has recently grown much louder in terms of what it wants, but very silent in terms of what it will pay for.

Schelter noted that if one reviews previous mayoral administrations, there were specific times in which to plan, whereas other times were wholly devoted to the implementation of such plans. For example, the Green administration was focused on doing the right thing at the waterfront–should we be raising the bar? The decision made was to create the Great Plaza, which was intended to be the sixth great square in Philadelphia, serving to bring people to the waterfront for events. The City Council (including John Street) committed $17.5 million to the project. Schelter argued that such a large commitment will be necessary by Mayor Nutter if he plans to move forward with the PennPraxis plan. The Goode administration’s plan became the implementation of the Great Plaza, including the involvement of private developers such as Dave & Busters and Hyatt. While Schelter admits that many of these projects do not survive as great pieces of architecture, but he noted that all of the problems tied to implementation of these projects surrounded the availability of federal funding and removal of the issue called “Federal Navigational Servitude,” an arcane piece of legislation that limits the amount of development along riverways and waterfronts. Similarly, such projects must secure the approval of state legislators. Any state-owned land (such as most of the entirety of the central waterfront) must receive approval before being allowed to transfer land to a private developer. This became a problem when the state limited the above initiative from all fifteen piers at once to a single site at a time, which fundamentally changed the developers approach to the waterfront.

Schelter continued by explaining how, during the Street administration, waterfront development was focused on the coming of gaming, which the speaker believes was directly responsible for the dramatic increase of public support for alternatives such as the PennPraxis plan. He believes that this process of citizen interest was good, since it gave a larger canvas for the vetting of all ideas for the waterfront.

Next, the speaker turned to the current plan and Alex Cooper, its master planner. Cooper is most famous for developing Battery Park City, in New York. During his selection process Cooper asked those in attendance to put the Philadelphia plan in context with his previous work: the New York project took forty years, billions of dollars in investment, and involved public-owned land. Additionally, New York State publicly supported the project with a $360 million bond for infrastructure improvement. In total, Battery Park City measures 1.4 miles of beautiful public land adjacent to the financial district of Wall Street, with several corporate world headquarters located nearby. In contrast, the Philadelphia project involves seven miles of planned development where the public owns only ten percent of the land and there is no state commitment for funding.

For these reasons, Schelter argued that the difficulty in this plan will be for Philadelphians to be realistic about what can be accomplished along the length of the waterfront and then be committed to making these things happen. He outlined several methods that must be taken to achieve this goal. First, the tax structure must be altered to encourage developers through incentives to come to the waterfront. Also, people must look very carefully at the approach that is being taken by the City Planning Commission in redoing the zoning codes, specifically on the waterfront. Recently, the Commission has adopted new regulations for waterfront development in the hopes that urban design will bring private development to the area. Lastly, Schelter urged all interested parties to be honest in their ongoing commitment to the waterfront. If everyone involved in the project is prepared to prioritize the next twenty years to working on waterfront development it can be made into a reality.

Spencer Finch

Spencer Finch, Director of Sustainability Development for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), a forty-year-old statewide non-profit organization that works on projects and policy, firmly believes that non-profits and community organizations play an important role in the development of cities. His speech was focused on how his non-profit organization works.

First, his organization, like others, begins with a vision. For example, their current vision is to complete the proposed network of bike routes throughout Pennsylvania. Another vision would be completion of the state off-road trails system that the state of Pennsylvania has mapped out, which includes the Appalachian and Schuylkill River Trails. As a statewide vision, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania funds yearly grants focused on the completion of this project. Nationally there are similar visions, such as the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000 mile network of trails from Maine to Florida that passes through every major coastal urban center including Philadelphia. Currently, this “urban Appalachian Trail” is about twenty percent complete, with the intention of the finished project being used for both recreational purposes as well as commuters.

Finch explained how the PEC noticed numerous different interests working independently on completing minor portions of the Greenway. The organization came up with the idea that finishing the project may be as simple as getting all of these different groups to work together. He argued that the first lesson on how to accomplish large projects is to start talking to everyone and show that there can be one single vision.

Next, the speaker outlined the steps involved in the process of completing the trail. Starting with the vision, there needs to be a feasibility study, then develop a master plan, secure funding, and create an engineering design. Finch admitted that this lengthy process is made easier by the PEC through the use of in-house specialists as well as contracting work to consultants. In this way the organization can provide support to counties, municipalities, and other entities that are trying to build all the smaller sections of the Greenway. In this way, his second lesson is to make sure your group has the right capacities.

Finch then argued that plans are too often initiated without seeking input from partners and the public. The PEC makes sure to utilize their network of partner organizations, both governmental and private, as well as the public at large. Seeking public involvement for the Greenway project involves a lot of public meetings and bike ride events as well as supporting other people or groups. To this end, the speaker’s third lesson is to plan with the public.

Next, Finch outlined his fourth lesson: do not be afraid to innovate, which can be done through technical details, such as the design of a road plan that includes room for everyone from bicyclists and pedestrians to motorists and the handicapped. This idea has been innovated all over the world, most recently in New York City and the PEC has helped Philadelphia apply this idea to the Spruce and Pine Street bike lanes. Innovation can also take other forms, such as the vision of a bike path passing through the entirety of Center City from Independence Mall up to and through the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, connecting all of the trails on the Delaware side of the river to the Schuylkill side. Finch argued that more often then not innovation must be taken to places where it has not been before, such as the Highline project in New York City, which created recreational park space built on top of abandoned railroad viaducts. Furthermore, innovation needs to be taken to places where it is unexpected, such as underserved neighborhoods. The speaker explained that his organization is trying to build parks, open spaces, trails, and bikeways in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, modeled after Majora Carter’s work in creating a sustainable South Bronx in New York City.

Finch continued that another way to innovate is to create region-wide coalitions. It is in this way that the Pennsylvania Economic Council recently was awarded $23 million to create trails throughout the Philadelphia region. This was accomplished by building up a coalition of public and private sponsors that included the support of every senator and representative in the region. Specifically, the grant will allow the PEC to create new trails linking established ones in the creation of a single, uniform, network. This will include creating extensions along the Schuylkill River Trail around Manayunk and south of Locust Street. The current two-year plan includes the creation of a floating boardwalk that connects Locust Street to South Street, extending the Schuylkill River Trail south. Also, there will be new trails along the Delaware River. By 2012, they hope to have new trails spreading south across the river into Camden, New Jersey, and north to Morrisville, New Hope, and New Brunswick. However, Finch concedes that even with the funding, there will be gaps remaining, such as north into Bucks County.

Finally, Finch argued that, historically, planners and developers saw the mega-project as the only possibility, such as I-95 and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In the creation of these mega-projects entire neighborhoods were often razed, displacing residents. Today, we realize even small projects can have big impacts. Therefore, if we all just care a little bit about our own homes, blocks, and neighborhoods we can have a huge impact in the future of Philadelphia. Also, if we ask the city to do the same, such as examining Port Richmond, we can transform the city while spending only a relatively small amount of money. In conclusion, Finch said that we can and should dream, but let us dream some sustainable, implement-able dreams. He then displayed several websites where people could participate in the Greenway project, including: www.completethetrail.info, www.pecpa.org, www.greenway.org, and www.bicyclecoalition.org.

Jethro Heiko

Jethro Heiko explained that he lives in Fishtown and is the Strategic Organizing Director for The Action Mill. The Action Mill believes that the community can create solutions that produce more value for all stakeholders than solutions generated through traditional means. This traditional approach has developers creating plans for development behind closed doors which are then presented as done deals to the public.

Heiko said that his experience living and working in Boston in the 1990’s showed him that there is a different and better way. For seven years he worked with an innovative community organization, the Fenway Community Development Corporation, that led a fifteen year planning and development initiative to transform the auto-centric area around Fenway Park into a pedestrian-oriented urban village. During the initiative the group organized residents around clear values and goals, and moved residents to take action to advance planning, zoning, and development guidelines that they themselves created.

He explained that, in 2000, they used these guidelines in a ten-day intensive design charette to develop alternatives to the demolition of Fenway Park. The design process, completed after the new stadium was a “done deal” led to a number of specific proposals for how Fenway Park could be saved. The plan was much better for the Red Sox Corporation than the plans that they had developed on their own, and since 2003 the community’s plans have been implemented. It was through meaningful citizen action that the community saved a historic ballpark, advanced a pro-development, sustainable plan, and saved taxpayers over $300 million.

Heiko then stated that he and his wife moved to Philadelphia in 2003 and settled in Fishtown because they were drawn by the beauty and potential greatness of the waterfront. In 2006, they went to a community meeting about casinos proposed for the city, including one proposed a block from their two hundred year old home. Furthermore, they were amongst two hundred neighborhood residents being told by their city councilman that there was nothing that could be done about the project, and to quote one speaker, that the residents should “sit back and take it.” At the meeting, he asked if there was a master plan for the riverfront and, despite the blank stares from the politicians, found a number of people in the audience who also felt that the riverfront was a valuable resource and that the residents should be in charge of guiding its future.

Heiko continued, saying that after this meeting they began gathering anyone that was tired of how things were being done in Philadelphia and that within weeks they were connecting with people from many different neighborhoods and learning that residents all over the city were yearning to be involved but felt as if they had no outlet. Together, they started Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront (NABR), which began to publicly push for a riverfront master plan, and Casino-Free Philadelphia, to challenge what was seen as the greatest development threat to a sustainable, family-friendly riverfront.

The speaker explained that these groups were organized similar to what he had learned in Boston. They brought people together who shared values, in this case for good government, community-based planning, and true economic development. They defined their principles and goals and began to take mission-driven action.

Heiko added that, rather than just complaining about not having a say on whether casinos should be located in neighborhoods, they helped organize two hundred residents to collect over 25,000 signatures in three weeks to put the question to the voters. Also, when the casinos sued to knock the question off the ballot, they helped Casino-Free Philadelphia organize the largest volunteer force on election day three years ago to hold our own election, called Philly’s Ballot Box. Lastly, when no one else would generate alternatives to the two casino sites on the riverfront, NABR held a one-day charette that envisioned what extending the street grid would really look like on the sites of the Sugarhouse and Foxwoods casinos.

He explained that the results of this approach are clear: organized citizens, vastly outspent and with little to no support from elected officials, have delayed and derailed highly juiced “done deal” projects. Neighborhood and council-manic prerogatives are being questioned as more residents understand the city-wide impacts of development and the regional importance of resources like the Delaware River. Ultimately, people understand that we are all connected and our expectations have been raised when it comes to public process, public access to the river, and to results.

Meanwhile, the riverfront trail and new transit lines along the riverfront are gaining traction. The speaker stated that soon they will have another public park just south of the Ben Franklin Bridge and millions of dollars of public and private money has been leveraged due to the citizen push for planning the riverfront. He acknowledged that many challenges remain, including the continuing effort to stop and shut down the casinos, but Steve Wynn’s recent announcement that he is pulling our of the Foxwoods deal gives them even more motivation. Heiko added that it is clear that the more citizens continue to put their ideas into action, the more likely we will see great things happen and prevent bad things from getting in the way.

The speaker concluded by saying that he is excited to see how this approach will lead to real, smart, and sustainable improvements to our city, and eager to see how the Action Mill can participate in making great things happen. From his experience, it is the only realistic alternative to the tired, corrupt, and disempowering approach that has gotten us the riverfront that we have now.

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