Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Panel and Audience Discussion

Initiating a discussion among the presenters, Ariel Ben-Amos noted that all of the panelists were white men but that our community is much more ethnically diverse. Given that much of Edmund Bacon’s plans for a Philadelphia World’s Fair were related to a white flight movement, the facilitator asked Scott Knowles how he sees the changing nature of urban planning given the changes in city demographics.

Knowles answered by referring to the late 1960s, when part of the Bicentennial Corporation’s efforts to prepare for the fair included significant outreach to communities, particularly through the efforts of Catherine Sue Leslie. She had to go some distance to convince some communities, particularly minority communities, that urban renewal meant more than displacement. These communities held a collective memory going back more than thirty years that “renewal” meant that their neighborhood would be deemed a slum and they would be forcibly removed, often under the guise of a “temporary displacement.” During the 1950s, these communities had a great deal of good faith in what the planning commission was doing. Unfortunately, the results in places such as East Poplar in North Philadelphia meant that many families were never relocated because the density of the housing projects that were constructed were lower than what had existed in the neighborhoods previously. Because of this, Leslie faced not only skepticism but a rising generation of African American organizers that had come to see neighborhood planning as their prerogative. For example, in Mantua, she found local organizers who were ready and willing to do some sophisticated planning about what role they wanted their neighborhoods to play in the Bicentennial’s larger vision for the city. Leslie encountered similar rising consciousness that Leslie as she traveled through the neighborhoods. Leslie had allies in the Bicentennial planning effort who were excited to learn about this community movement, but in general it was a new idea that these elite planners, architects, and financiers would actually sit at a table and work with community organizers in a meaningful way, and as such they had no real roadmap with which to work.

The facilitator then asked Spencer Finch to speak about his current work in bringing multi-racial sensitivity to planning today.

First, Finch noted that many of the leaders in the sustainability movement are women, including the City of Philadelphia’s sustainability director (Katherine Gajewski), and the leaders within both Penn Future (Christine Knapp) and the Bicycle Coalition (Sarah Clark Stuart, Breen Goodwin). In relation to ethnicity in Philadelphia, Finch believes that the city’s diversity of communities is one of its strengths. His project wants to see more community leaders take charge, since they live in the neighborhoods and are the ones who will ultimately own the project.

Harris Steinberg added that in his work, engaging different ethnic groups is about listening and being sensitive to people’s values. Furthermore, it is not as much about who the convener is, as it is about how the facilitator honors the community in terms of the questions asked, the way the meetings are facilitated, and the outreach that happens in order to bring people into the process. Sometimes, when certain groups are not represented at meetings it may be necessary to expand the number of meetings or types of outreach. Often, it takes time to build trust and relationships. While it is very important that the right people are around the table, it is also important to ask the right questions.

Jethro Heiko then spoke about the contrast in how different stakeholders see the value of resident participation and the assets that communities and residents bring. If you see the community as an obstacle or an afterthought to your project, then no bridges are built in the community. The consequence is that projects cannot cash in on the talents of the community. During his experience working on the Fenway in Boston, many local women of color were hired who, by the end, had became experts in planning, zoning, and organizing. If more of this were happening in Philadelphia, Heiko believes that ethnicities and communities would be better represented. Lastly, Heiko mentioned his belief that little has changed since the 1960s, because he does not see many developers actually sitting down with organizers around the table as they tried to do back then.

Ben-Amos asked the panelists to talk about how the work they do on a daily basis is influenced by the individuals or groups to whom they are responsible.

Craig Schelter began by speaking about a recent project he took part in, at 21st and Chestnut Streets, where a developer had entered into an agreement with a medical center for a mixed-use project that would benefit both the hospital and the local business community. During the project, it became clear that the zoning codes were impossible to meet. Therefore, during the approval process, the Center City community and the developers met no less than twenty-three times. It became clear that there was no simple and direct community voice; in fact, the Civic Association never took a stand on the project. In this situation, the end result was based solely on what the developer could afford. Schelter explained that in most of the projects that he has been associated with, the developer has been ready to listen to the community, but ultimately the project has to balance financially before anything can be built.

Spencer Finch drew a distinction between his project and the one previously related by Schelter since his company is not a developer. Therefore, his work falls within a different arena in the sense that it is attempting to fill a void that a community or city does not have the capacity to fill.

Harris Steinberg spoke about how working with foundations influences his work. Acknowledging that he cannot speak about other foundations, his work on the Central Delaware was funded by the William Penn Foundation, and their working relationship has been a very positive one. Steinberg sees the William Penn Foundation as unusual in terms their being partners in a project as opposed to playing a more behind-the-scenes role. Steinberg and his colleagues at the William Penn Foundation worked together as professionals with a lot of back-and-forth communication informed by shared ideals and values. PennPraxis partners with academics, experts, researchers, and professionals who straddle the line between theory and practice. This type of working relationship is compatible with the philosophy of the foundation.

Craig Schelter added that public developers must take into account the other priorities of a government. For example, planning commissions decide every year on a budget and how to allocate that money. Therefore, many projects are determined to be feasible based on their tax returns exceeding the debts accrued by the city. After this, the project becomes part of the political process.

Spencer Finch responded that, for his company, collaboration is crucial because everyone is a client. His project involves multiple funders, neighborhoods, landowners, and different agencies within municipal and state government systems, all of which are clients. For every little piece of the project that his company is working on, there may be up to ten different clients that need to be satisfied.

Jethro Heiko mentioned that he, as a community organizer, has been struggling for fifteen years to understand what “community” means, because it represents more than a geographical location or a similar system of values. During his work in Fishtown, he struggled with a divided community to create a community of people that was not defined by what neighborhood they lived in, but by how they are accountable to the city. Furthermore, he feels that development projects of assets such as the Delaware and Wissahickon waterways are extremely important and everyone should feel that they are the stewards of these places. In this way, it is necessary to build a sense of accountability and community that is very broad. As such, Heiko feels accountable to not just people and the planet, but also to the ideas that people are generating. Ultimately, he feels that if we are not accountable to the bigger visions of sustainability then we are not fulfilling our responsibilities.

Scott Knowles then addressed issues of responsibility in regards to Ed Bacon. He believes that Bacon struggled to understand the relationship between citizens, government, and the planner (defined broadly to include planner, implementer, and financer). During his long career Bacon successfully managed multiple responsibilities to the city administration, the Planning Commission, and others, marshalling a great deal of political will and staff support from very talented people. Additionally, he managed his professional identity exceptionally well, even gracing the cover of Time magazine, a remarkable feat for an urban planner. However, he struggled with the broader sense of his responsibility to the city and what that means. It might mean the physical city, which he took perhaps too seriously, but it also could mean his responsibility to citizens, an area that he was never quite satisfied with his work. Furthermore, whereas he could clearly see community input in the Better Philadelphia Exhibition of 1947, by the 1960’s, when he was planning the World’s Fair, things had greatly changed. Knowles thinks that Bacon felt that during this time he felt frustrated that he had not connected with the citizens or served them well. Even at the end of his public career he was still struggling with the responsibility of the planner to the citizens of a city.

Finally, Craig Schelter stated his belief that when the federal government stopped funding urban renewal on a regular basis it dramatically affected the continuity of citizen participation in the planning process. From his experience, meeting yearly with civic associations and neighborhood leaders to directly determine planning and development was a very fruitful process that built relationships and mutual trust. However, when the federal government decided that it no longer had an urban strategy it made the process much more difficult. Planning and development is now created through the process of zoning, a blunt instrument where a more sophisticated tool is necessary to achieve results.

Audience Discussion

The first audience question asked Scott Knowles about Ed Bacon’s vision for the Schuylkill River. What was the relationship between his life and experiences in Philadelphia and the development of the river?

Knowles answered that Ed Bacon was not a man of small plans. He really believed that, once securing federal funding, if good plans were made both the Schuylkill and Delaware waterfronts could be developed at the same time. However, one of the big challenges was to put together large parcels of land along the Schuylkill, since the Pennsylvania Railroad also owned land along the waterfront.

Craig Schelter added that Bacon created a detailed plan in 1963 that, by 1968, had started to become a reality through funding. The budget for the first year of that project was $3.5 million. However, since the waterfront development fell within the City Parks budget, by the second year the project became mixed in with all park development within Philadelphia. Consequently, it took almost forty years for the Schuylkill waterfront development to reach its current state. Although the waterfront is only about a mile and a half long, it took a long time for the city to be able to put the individual pieces of the project together and acquire the necessary funding. To this end, the individual pieces of any plan must be reasonable enough to receive the funding that will allow the larger project to be completed. The question that now faces the Schuylkill waterfront is to find funding for the next phase of development. Schelter then expressed his desire that the William Penn Foundation could be Philadelphia’s sustainable financial future because it continually funds excellent development programs. However, neighborhood commitment and enthusiasm is directly related to knowing when projects will be completed, inevitably growing disenchanted with projects that stretch on for decades.

The next audience questioner noted an increase in shipping and industrial traffic into the port of Philadelphia. How do we reconcile visions for the waterfront and recreational land use with Philadelphia being a major port?

Harris Steinberg began by noting that representatives from the Port of Philadelphia and the International Longshoreman’s Association were very active in the planning process for the waterfront. Furthermore, the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware recognizes that the port is an important part of Philadelphia’s economy. Much of the future port activity will be south of the Walt Whitman Bridge due to the size requirements of contemporary shipping, and will therefore be located south of the project area (which extends from Oregon Avenue to Allegheny Avenue and the Delaware River to I-95). That being said, planners imagine that there will still be active port usage north of the bridge for the foreseeable future. Also, other cities such as Rotterdam and Seattle effectively combine an industrial uses, an active port, and contemporary planning. Steinberg mentioned that organizations such as Spencer Finch’s have shown the ability to weave modern public amenities such as connective trails through the existing infrastructure that make a city continue to be alive and vibrant. Therefore, he does not see active port usage as a problem for the project. Steinberg sees it as good for the economy, a good use of existing infrastructure and port facilities, and consistent with the vision of the project which is inclusive of multiple uses.

Craig Schelter added that an active port is also consistent with what the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) planned for the Navy Yard, where there are around six hundred acres of land available for port expansion south of the central waterfront. He believes this is a very positive situation because it is creating jobs, which is necessary given the current economic client, provided that the port expansion does not compromise the master plan being superbly implemented by the public/private partnership between Liberty Property Trust and PIDC.

Spencer Finch then mentioned that the PIDC wants to create a bike trail through the Navy Yard. Also, part of the TIGER grant was earmarked for a new trail from Allegheny Avenue through the Tioga Marine Terminal to the foot of the Betsy Ross Bridge. Schelter mentioned that there is plenty of space available for new development in the central waterfront due to the city rezoning the area to create the Waterfront Redevelopment District. This changed the area from industrial land to unrestricted space available for creating new residential areas that includes a continuous walkway along the river.

Another audience questioner noted changes in urban planning in Philadelphia over the last fifty years and was looking for confirmation of two observations he had made. Whereas fifty years ago the city was thinking in terms of very large master plans, now there appears to be no master plan, instead replaced with projects intended to develop specific areas of the city, such as the waterfront, Convention Center, port facilities, and bike trails. These new plans are nothing like the kind of large scale planning that Ed Bacon created. Also, while in the 1950s and 1960s neighborhood planning used to be very confrontational between minorities and the poor who were opposed to large plans, neighborhood planning today appeared to involve more cooperation between residents and the planners. Are both of these observations true and, if so, why has this change occurred?

Harris Steinberg answered that the Planning Commission will begin this summer on creating the first comprehensive plan of the city since the 1960s. Therefore, people are about to see what large-scale planning looks like for the first time in several generations. The Planning Commission will take approximately a year to develop broad-stroke transformational moves or visions through a series of workshops throughout the city in 2010, after which they will begin to work on smaller-scale district plans, breaking Philadelphia up into eighteen districts. The expectation will be to ambitiously roll out two of these district plans every year. So, over the next four and a half years there will be a renaissance of city planning on a large scale. Steinberg acknowledges that he does not know if any of these ideas will be on the same scale as those developed by Ed Bacon, but he thinks that it is remarkable to note that the city is embarking on a comprehensive plan.

Craig Schelter mentioned that Bacon created a diagram of how to design cities which he referred to as “cyclical feedback.” In this way, all urban plans followed through a specific cycle, starting with a comprehensive plan, then to a district plan, redevelopment plan, site-specific plan, budgeting process, and timeline for completion. After this, the entire project went back to the beginning with a re-examination of the comprehensive plan in a continuous process of evaluation.

On the issue of neighborhood planning, Schelter sees the main change from previous years in how the Planning Commission has outsourced the planning process to organizations that provide funding, such as the William Penn Foundation. Also, neighborhoods with strong development markets have hired very good planners and developed their own plans, such as residents of Center City, Logan Square, and Northern Liberties. The issue now focuses on how the Planning Commission reconciles the differences between those neighborhood plans and those of the larger development community. Specifically, there are problems dealing with local wishes that fall outside of the interests of the city as a whole. For example, the plan developed by the residents of Center City expanded beyond their residential area into the downtown core with the issue of height limits on buildings, an issue previously resolved during the creation of Liberty Place. Here, there was a necessity for the Planning Commission to decide what parts of the plan they did and did not accept, a process that will become crucial as the Zoning Code Commission becomes involved in the debates over a comprehensive plan during the next few months.

Scott Knowles remarked that, since the 1950s, there has been a broader shift throughout America against planning professionals which mirrored the political and cultural environment of the 1960s and 1970s when many American societal institutions were being questioned. Also, there was a shift during this time from a faith in managerial professionals to more privatist influences. Planners learned that it was now necessary to be able to speak in a way that developers and bankers could understand and that were no longer able to simply ride on their professional status alone. Knowles also agreed with Craig Schelter’s comment that federal funding for development dried up during the 1970s. However, there is a need for historians to examine how much planners were responsible for this change in funding. There was a real and measurable backlash against urban planning in the 1960s. There is evidence of a push-back against the way that the Johnson administration was allowing local and state planners to spend funds which would indicate that planners were at least partially responsible for their own lack of influence into the 1970s.

Harris Steinberg added that this time period brought about the rise of advocacy planning, where professional planners helped communities find their voice within the world of top-down planning. This was another aspect of the social, cultural and professional changes that occurred in society during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Furthermore, the planning community is still grappling with the same issues of funding and the general state of economics that haunted planners and developers decades ago. Also, Steinberg believes that the role of the citizen in the planning process in Philadelphia today places them almost in a standoff between the development, political, and civic communities. The planning community is trying to find a path out of this stalemate that advances the vision of the city, particularly in defining whose vision takes precedent and how it is formed. At the moment however, as the city is rewriting the zoning code, the larger community is grappling with difficult questions such as the role of the public in city planning and what is the future relationship between the civic community and development professionals.

Craig Schelter argued that another aspect to consider is how cities that have done exceptionally well in urban planning and renewal are places where mayoral administrations have been in office for lengthy periods, such as Mayors Richard Daley in Chicago (1989-present), Tom Menino (1993-present) and Kevin White (1968-1984) in Boston, William Schaefer in Baltimore (1971-1987), and Michael Bloomberg in New York City (2002-present). A lengthy time in office allows the administration to send a clear statement to the community in terms of how their government will function and communicate with developers and civic members. This creates a constant message that is viewed as extremely important by the development community. Schelter explained that what developers see now is what he refers to as “planning by Photoshop,” where planners show images of what could be based on what has been done in other cities without comparing economic and growth statistics of the two cities. Statistical evidence is critical because existing positive city growth presents many more planning opportunities than one where development and renewal is intended to create growth where none currently exists.

Jethro Heiko explained that Mayor Menino was a major advocate of the demolition of Fenway Park and the investment of over $300 million of public money in a new stadium, which proved unnecessary. Also, as previously outlined, community organizers engaged in a ten-day design charette involving professional planners, stadium architects, and community members, resulting in a design that was an alternate to Fenway Park’s demolition that would meet every financial requirement of the Red Sox Corporation. Therefore, that kind of intense design process that actually leads to meaningful plans that were then implemented is very influential to how he thinks about planning and development. Heiko also argued that there are a lot of misconceptions that dominate planning discussions. For example, he does not live in a place on the riverfront where I-95 forms a barrier preventing access to the water. For him, the barrier is a series of fences. Additionally, Port Richmond already exists as a beautiful park, even though there is no trespassing allowed in the area. Local citizens disregard the restricted access to gather nearby for social occasions because they consider it one of the most beautiful places in Philadelphia and it is unfortunate that such a beautiful site is completely and unnecessarily off-limits to the public. Furthermore, much of the land on and around the riverfront is publicly-owned and the community has the ability and tools to bring the property into the public domain. The question facing us is: are we going to continue to give away public land for nothing and continue the slide towards privatization where government seems far more concerned about the interests of businesses and corporations than those of citizens?

Heiko also talked about the loss of population and jobs in the city of Philadelphia over the last several decades, arguing that the best way to create in-fill development (i.e. filling in neighborhoods where there has been a major lack of development) is to invest in various quality-of-life amenities throughout the city. While the largest would be to improve the school system, another way to do this would be to create more open land and green space, particularly in the eastern portions of the city from the Delaware River to Broad Street. For example, if the city maximizes the potential for open space on the riverfront it would create incentives for development throughout the east side of the city. Heiko believes that this is a realistic long-term vision for Philadelphia that is not very costly and that could result in both a great waterfront and population growth that increases the tax-base, which would help with other problems facing the city.

Craig Schelter agreed with Heiko on the issue of park land in underserved areas of Philadelphia. He believes that the city needs to re-examine Mayor Frank Rizzo’s policy of purchasing land for park use just to solve a zoning issue. Under this policy, any vacant land slated for development unwanted by neighborhoods was purchased by the city for the Department of Parks and Recreation. This resulted in negotiations of development issues that ultimately added land to the tax rolls and amenities for the communities. He added that the new Fairmount Park Commission needs to create a similar strategy that would generate funding used to buy land for parks use throughout the city. Schelter believes that it will be necessary to purchase the land because it is unlikely that people or businesses will give up land for free, such as the railroad companies handing over Port Richmond.

Jethro Heiko remarked that some areas of the city are too dense for open space development, such as in Center City. He offered that, in these cases, developers unable to provide open land could instead provide funding for areas where space is needed, like on the Delaware riverfront or other locations.

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