Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Keys to Philadelphia's Land Bank Success

By Greg Heller

Philadelphia recently became the largest U.S. city to create a “land bank.” The news was picked up by The New York Times, which touted Philly’s approach as a “model for other cities like Detroit.” Land banks have been around for decades, but have become more popular of late. The idea is for cities to play a lead role in taking title to blighted properties that are tax delinquent or where there is no clear title, in order to more effectively convey that land to willing developers, with the goal of revitalizing neighborhoods.

The concept of a land bank makes sense for cities that have a large number of vacant properties. However, alone they are not silver bullets. As new land banks spring up across the country, it is important to take a close look at what needs to accompany them if we want to have real impact on America’s urban landscape.

Turning back the clock: In 2001 Philadelphia launched its $300 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) to reduce blight and rebuild neighborhoods. One of the program’s major goals was, “Improve the City’s ability to assemble and dispose of land for redevelopment and establish a Land Bank...” While NTI had some successes in assembling land for construction of affordable housing, by and large the program’s land bank component was considered less effective than its creators hoped. As NTI was rolling out, a policy report on the program cautioned, “Urban renewal strategies focused primarily on demolition and land assembly have not proven effective.”

In light of the mixed reviews of NTI’s land bank approach a decade ago, what makes us think the current effort will be more effective? To be fair, there is a big difference now, thanks to Pennsylvania’s state enabling legislation that went into effect last year. This legislation gave local governments stronger powers to quickly take title to tax delinquent properties, and to clear liens. If the state had granted these powers years ago, programs like NTI may have been more successful.

Despite its flaws, NTI deserves credit for attempting a multi-faceted, market-based approach to neighborhood planning and investment. NTI was very data-driven, based on analysis of neighborhood demographics and trends. Today’s land-bank boosters should learn from NTI’s flaws, but seek to emulate its strong points by again forging a comprehensive, multi-faceted, and data-driven approach.

One big issue is that land banks depend on developer interest. If the market is weak, it is more challenging to convey properties to willing buyers. The New York Times noted “how rapidly the Land Bank’s appeal will translate into changes from block to block depends greatly on the health and strength of the city’s real estate market.”

In order to stimulate development, we need more than a land bank. We need to increase investment in targeted loan & grant funds, and tax credit programs for urban areas. The City can play a role here, but much of this funding comes from state and federal government programs. Thus, we need to pressure our legislators to strengthen programs like Community Development Block Grants and New Markets Tax Credits.

Another issue is that some speculators sit on vacant and blighted properties for a long time, waiting for values to rise, so they can flip. This problem has a simple solution that is within the City’s grasp: Philadelphia barely taxes land—with our assessment dial turned all the way to taxing property. If we adjust the dial, to tax land and property more equally, it will make it more expensive to sit on blight, and incentivize more rapid redevelopment.

Finally, thriving neighborhoods need strong civic and community organizations. Neighborhoods that lack this type of infrastructure see slower and less strategic investment. Groups like Wells Fargo Regional Foundation have been working for years to empower local community partners. We should focus more resources on local groups in areas targeted for land banking to increase the potential that new development will be in line with a strategic, community-driven approach.

NTI presented a cautionary tale about how politics can get in the way. NTI dollars were divvied up by City Council. What was supposed to be a targeted, data driven approach was eventually watered down by local politics. It’s not a perfect world, and politics are bound to be involved, but as well as we can, we should try to keep the land bank effort insulated from influence by local political fiefdoms.

Philadelphia’s land bank is an important step, but we cannot sit back, relax and watch the magic happen. We need to make sure that the rest of the economic equation makes sense. If we build a full range of programs and incentives for developers, policies that encourage development, empowered community groups, and a land bank with inventory, then perhaps Philadelphia really is on its way to creating a nationally replicable model for success.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Two Invitations

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Happy new year! There are two exciting events coming up that I want to share with you, and invite you to attend.

First, it was a great honor to be invited to speak at the National Building Museum on the "legacy of urban renewal." I am speaking as part of a terrific program on January 22nd, including fomer D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams among the presenters.

Secondly, I hope you will come be part of the awards ceremony for the 8th annual Better Philadelphia Challenge and Edmund N. Bacon Prize on February 18th. The prize this year will go to former Pennsylvania Governor and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. It is thrilling for me to see this program that I helped establish years ago, now remain so vibrant, relevant, and impactful in its 8th year.

I hope to see you at one or both of these events. Best wishes for a prosperous 2014!

Cheers,
Greg




The Legacy of Urban Renewal

A city leader, a planner, and an historian discuss the long-term impact of mid-century urban renewal in D.C.’s Southwest quadrant and explore how othercities have learned from past large-scale developments. This program coincideswith the publication Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia by Greg Heller, interim president & CEO of American Communities Trust, who is one of our panelists and who will sign copies of the book after the program.
 
Other panelists include Eugenie L. Birch, co-director, Penn Institute for Urban Research, Lionel Lynch, principal, HR&A Advisors (moderator), and Anthony A. Williams, chief executive officer and executive director, Federal City Council and former Mayor Washington, DC (1999-2007). This program is presented in partnership with the Urban Land Institute Washington and the Penn Institute for Urban Research.
 
Wednesday, January 22, 2014 
6:30 PM - 8:00 PM
at the National Building Museum
401 F Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20001

Better Philadelphia Challenge & Edmund N. Bacon Prize

Join political powerhouse Ed Rendell as he presents an insightful talk in honor of receiving the 2014 Edmund N. Bacon Prize for his lifetime of success in promoting smart investment in transportation infrastructure. The Edmund N. Bacon Prize is bestowed annually on an accomplished figure who, like Bacon (Executive Director of Philadelphia's City Planning Commission from 1949-1970), has achieved outstanding success in urban planning, development, and design through conviction of vision, effective communication, and a commitment to improving their community.
 
Ed Rendell is well known both locally and nationally as one of the foremost advocates for serious investment in transportation infrastructure, as has been evidenced through his tenure as Mayor of Philadelphia, Governor of Pennsylvania, chair of the Democratic National Committee, and as a political commentator on many national news programs. In 2008 Rendell co-founded Building America's Future, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials dedicated to "bringing about a new era of U.S. investment in infrastructure that enhances our nation's prosperity and quality of life".
 
The Better Philadelphia Challenge annually gives university-level students from around the world the chance to address real-world urban design issues in Philadelphia that have application not only to our city, but to aging industrialized cities around the globe. This year's challenge asked university-level students to imagine the physical shape of Philadelphia in a future of autonomous vehicles. First prize is $5,000.

Tuesday, February 18th 2014
7:00-8:30 PM
at the Pennsylvania Convention Centers (theater, room 114)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Food Economy Projects and News

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Things have been busy recently, between my consulting projects and my book release. Progress is moving along well with American Communities Trust and the Baltimore Food Hub, and I'm working on a number of other projects as a Senior Advisor with Econsult Solutions. While my projects are diverse, involving real estate and economic development, much of my practice continues to focus on the food economy. Here are some featured projects I would like to share with you.
All best, Greg
New Report - U.S. Kitchen Incubators: An Industry Snapshot

Greg was lead author on a recent Econsult Solutions report "U.S. Kitchen Incubators: An Industry Snapshot." Over 135 kitchen incubators exist in the U.S., and during the past five years a significant number of new kitchen incubators have opened around the country, prompting the need for this national survey. Kitchen incubators are shared-use commercial kitchens, often with supportive services for early-stage culinary businesses. The purpose of this research is to inform operators of existing and planned kitchen incubators to better understand national models and approaches to culinary micro-enterprise development.
 
Check out this article by Next City on the Econsult Solutions report.
Lots of Press for the Baltimore Food Hub

Greg serves as the project manager withAmerican Communities Trust for the Baltimore Food Hub -- a planned 3.5-acre campus of facilities, services, and programs focused on enhancing Baltimore’s local food economy. The project includes a kitchen incubator, canning commissary, urban farming, workforce development and educational spaces, farm stand, and community gardens. The project will bring new life to beautiful historic buildings, play a major role in revitalizing East Baltimore, and create jobs and opportunities for the neighborhood, while serving as an asset that will benefit the city and region.
 
Check some out recent media coverage of the project:
 

Cincinnati Kitchen Accelerator Feasibility Study

Greg was the lead on Econsult Solutions' “kitchen accelerator feasibility study” for the Corporation for Findlay Market in Cincinnati, supported by the Haile U.S. Bank Foundation. The study concluded that Cincinnati can support a kitchen accelerator, and that there appears to be substantial unmet demand for such a project, as well as significant interest and enthusiasm from entrepreneurs and other stakeholders. Further, a kitchen accelerator appears to be badly needed in Cincinnati, and could fill an important void in efforts to develop the local food economy, empower micro-entrepreneurs, and support new jobs. Read about the project here.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Revisiting Ed Bacon's Legacy and the Future of Planning in Philly


Revisiting Ed Bacon's Legacy and the Future of Planning in Philly 

A recent biography of Philadelphia’s most famous urban planner, Ed Bacon, has refreshed a discussion about the role of planning in Philadelphia. Known for his work on urban renewal, Bacon left his mark on the city in ways both good and bad. Now, Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger fills the role of chief city planner, with an equally demanding job of overseeing economic development. Greenberger and Greg Heller, author of "Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia" will look at whether urban planning still drives development in the city. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Inga Saffron will moderate. This event is hosted by Next City.

Note, this event was rescheduled from its original date. It will now be held on Tuesday, July 30th from 5:30-7:00 PM at Fleisher Art Memorial (719 Catharine St, Philadelphia). More info.
Recent Book Reviews

Recent reviews of "Ed Bacon" are starting a fresh conversation around Bacon's legacy and the future role of urban planning in America.



Summer Book QuarterlyPhiladelphia City Paper (by Bryan Bierman)
- "Edmund Bacon, doer,The Philadelphia Inquirer (by Inga Saffron)
"The Philadelphia Story," Architect (by Ben Adler)
"Ed Bacon" Featured on WHYY

Greg Heller was interviewed by Dave Heller on WHYY's NewsWorks Tonight in a segment titled "Edmund Bacon, architect of modern Philadelphia, and champion of skateboarders." The interview aired on the radio and is available online. Listen to the interview here.
Book Talks in Philadelphia & Baltimore

Many thanks to the great venues that hosted successful "Ed Bacon" book talks over the past month, including theAthenaeum of PhiladelphiaCenter for Architecture's Building Philadelphia Lecture Series, Franklin Inn Club, and D Center Baltimore's Design Conversation at Windup Space. If your organization would like to host a book talk, please contact Greg Heller.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Future of Public Space

By Greg

On May 22nd, Paine’s Park will open along Schuylkill River Trail, just below the Art Museum, providing a new venue for skateboarding—long-promised by the City after it banned boarding at LOVE Park in 2002. However, anyone who expects a fenced-in lot with ramps and half-pipes will be surprised. Instead what awaits is the kind of familiar urban plaza we may seek in order to sit on a bench and read a book. The big difference is that Paine’s is a plaza built to accommodate and welcome skateboarders as well as other uses. This fact makes the park an experiment of a new type of urban space that could be the way of the future.

In 2002 the City started stringently enforcing a skateboarding ban in LOVE Park, the downtown plaza at the eastern end of the Parkway. This was significant because by that point LOVE had become an international skateboarding destination. The X Games—the Olympiad of extreme sports—came to Philadelphia two years in a row, in part because of the fame of LOVE Park. However, just before the X Games opened in 2002 the City renovated LOVE Park to make it unskateable, and stationed a police officer to keep boarders out. California-based DC Shoes rushed to Philly to film a commercial at LOVE Park to market its skateboarding shoe label just before the park closed for renovations.

After enduring much protest and letter writing opposing the skateboarding ban, the City decided to support the creation of a new skatepark at the foot of the Art Museum. Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund was established around this project, headed by the skateboard-toting, law-degree holding, Josh Nims. Franklin’s Paine worked with a creative team led by architect Tony Bracali, now of Friday Architects. The City Planning Commission choreographed a thoughtful public process to design a park that could work for both skaters and the general public. A team of numerous others guided the ambitious fundraising effort that has finally come to fruition.

The team behind Paine’s insisted that the end result not be a fenced-in skatepark, but a space that imitates the successes of LOVE, as a public plaza that also allows skateboarding. This design decision reflects a change in the face of skateboarding—a multi-billion-dollar sport that has shifted from daredevil tricks on ramps, to favoring lower-impact moves on naturally occurring elements in the urban landscape—benches, ledges, stairs. This international trend, dubbed “street skating,” birthed a distinctively urban pastime, destined to run into challenges when boarders and traditional park users intersected.

Some take the view that skateboarding cannot be compatible in the same space as dog walkers, newspaper readers, and stroller pushers. Across the country, cities and towns outlawed skateboarding on public plazas due to fears that skateboarding will damage public parks or get in the way of other park users. However, this may prove to be an increasingly outdated view.

Some prominent designers believe that skateboarding can and should be allowed on public spaces. In the 1960s LOVE Park was designed by architect Vincent Kling, and imagined and promoted by city planning director Ed Bacon. In 2002 Bacon rode a skateboard in LOVE Park in protest of the city’s ban on the sport, at age 92. Kling was also there, and he told the press, “I built this place so that people could enjoy it. And that includes skateboarders.” Bacon and Kling recognized that although they had designed the park for one set of uses, new uses inevitably evolve in a dynamic city, and those uses should be embraced.

The Paine’s Park designers, Bracali and Nims, worked with skateboarders to analyze how they use public space, and created a plaza that includes dimensions and shapes that are friendly for skating, utilizing materials to reduce the damage, and taking care to mediate potential areas of conflict between different types of park users. At the end of the day, the approach adopted by Bacon and Kling, Bracali and Nims is the right one. It is the responsibility of designers to embrace new and exciting uses of public space, and to find ways to design the next generation of plazas to accommodate those uses. There are “skateable plazas” in other cities, but perhaps none as thoughtfully planned and executed as Paine’s Park.

I hope the Paine’s Park experiment is successful, and the City becomes comfortable adapting other public spaces to accommodate skateboarding. Skating is, by no means, the first new use to change the demands on our public spaces. The lesson is that we need innovative designers and landscape architects who can break free of the stodgy past, and embrace a more dynamic view for designing successful public spaces in the 21st century. Only then will our public spaces fully represent the desires of the public.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Ed Bacon" Latest News and Events

— LATEST NEWS & EVENTS —
Book Launch May 16th
The official book launch is this Thursday, May 16th from 6:00-7:30 PM at the Center for Architecture (1218 Arch Street, Philadelphia). The event is free and open to the public. It will include a book signing and reception with light refreshments.Please RSVP here.
Upcoming Events and Book Talks
On June 26th, Next City is hosting a discussion with Greg Heller and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, moderated by architecture critic Inga Saffron, on Bacon's legacy and the future of planning in Philadelphia. More info here. Other upcoming book talks and events will take place at Reading Terminal Market, the Philadelphia Athenaeum, and the Franklin Inn Club. A full schedule of events can be foundhere.
Check Out New Book Reviews 
Hidden City recently ran a great review of "Ed Bacon" by Nathaniel Popkin. Other reviews and articles ran in thePhiladelphia Weekly PressFlying Kite Media, and Wesleyan Connection. A complete list of media coverage can be foundhere.
Packed House in Cincinnati
On May 1st Greg Heller gave a book talk at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati, to a packed house of over 50 people. Many thanks to the Haile U.S. Bank Foundation and the Mercantile Library for setting up this great event!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fixing Communities and Schools Together
(or Busing Is So 1980s)


By Greg

An article in Sunday’s New York Times magazine by Adam Davidson describes how low-income families rent apartments in Greenwich so that their kids can attend the town’s excellent public schools—spending their days cavorting with children of the rich and well-educated. The article cites “new research” that “suggests economic integration may be the answer” to improving the academic achievement of poor students.

While other factors are equally if not more important (such as teacher quality), there is plenty of research to back up this assertion that economic integration in schools really matters. For example, a July 2009 report from the Urban Institute lists as one of its four key principals: “Low-income children beneļ¬t from the resources and learning environment available at schools that also serve middle- and higher-income families.”

The question, though, is how best to develop economically integrated schools. Davidson’s solution is to transport kids out of poor schools into wealthier districts. The article explains, “poor kids at wealthier schools could do better; low-income schools could focus on fewer students; wealthier schools could receive subsidies and benefit from diversity.”

But this solution is not new and it’s not innovative. For at least four decades, districts have been “busing” students as a way of diversifying schools and providing enhanced choice.

Davidson’s article does not delve into the real issue, which is that community schools represent the economics of their neighborhoods. We have schools where over 70% of students are receiving free-and-reduced lunch because the majority of households in that school’s community are very poor. We can airdrop poor kids from one community to another, but instead shouldn't the real response be to improve the economic diversity of poor neighborhoods?

If we accept that economic integration is key to improving school performance, then we need to stop looking at these issues in silos. We need to refocus the dialogue on how to improve communities and schools together. We want schools that are integrated because their neighborhoods are integrated—not because we bused a bunch of students from the Bronx.

The Urban Institute report briefly addresses this point, stating, “it is possible to create effective, mixed-income schools in previously poor neighborhoods, attract nonpoor families, and improve school quality for the neediest children.” There are certainly examples of organizations focusing on investment in schools and communities together (Harlem Children’s Zone, University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia Initiative, East Baltimore redevelopment). Often these approaches are controversial, rife with debates about privatizing public education or powerful institutions becoming agents of gentrification.

But the fact that there are so few significant examples of major community-school reinvestment approaches, and that they are so controversial tells me that we have not yet gotten it right. We need more focus on these types of approaches, not less. It is unconscionable that we have high-poverty communities, and it is even worse that we have failing schools perpetuated by their place-based socio-economic segregation. These problems are attached at the hip—so let’s look at them together.

We can send a handful of kids from the Bronx to New Rochelle, but let’s be smarter than to think this approach a long-term strategy for success.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Philadelphia Snapshot, a Complex Story


By Greg

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently released its annual State of the City report. It’s an attractive, easy-to read shapshot of our city and region. Having a report like this is helpful for measuring progress and comparing the city to its peers, and Philadelphia is lucky to have an organization with deep pockets willing to assemble it.

However, studying the snapshot gives us some serious reasons for pause. The story is not a clear-cut tale of prosperity and growth, or of poverty and decline. Instead it is a complex story of seemingly contradictory indicators of a growing city on the move, but one that still faces challenges more daunting than many comparison cities.

First the good news. Philadelphia is growing, gaining population steadily each year. Our regional economy is the seventh largest in the nation, with its metro area’s GDP outpacing San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta. Philadelphia’s median household income has increased between 2006 and 2011. Our cost of living in Philly is now higher than that of Chicago.

The region’s average number of tourists per year has risen 37 percent over the last decade. Both the number of major crimes and violent crimes have dropped in the past decade. Home sales are increasing in 2012, and the annual number of residential building permits issued is back at pre-recession levels. Between 2010 and 2012, the city saw an 18 percent increase in median home prices, overall.

At the same time, however, at $34,207 Philadelphia’s median income is below Baltimore and Pittsburgh. There is a bigger difference in median income between Philadelphia and Chicago than there is between Philadelphia and Detroit. With unemployment, the outlook is even bleaker. Philadelphia’s rate of 10.7 in 2012 was higher than every comparison city except Detroit. Philadelphia ranks way below both the national average and the big-city average for public school students proficient in reading and math. Only 13 percent of public schools make “adequate yearly progress,” and just 23.6 percent of Philadelphians are college graduates, ranking us below Phoenix, Baltimore, Houston, and Pittsburgh.

Perhaps most distressing is that Philadelphia’s poverty rate saw an 86 percent increase between 2004 and 2011. At 28.4 percent our poverty rate is now higher than those in Baltimore, Houston, and Pittsburgh. To quote the Pew study: “Among the nation’s 25 largest cities, only Detroit has a higher poverty rate than Philadelphia.”

In 2007 the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board put out a report titled “A Tale of Two Cities,” explaining, “There are two Philadelphias growing further and further apart. One is
prospering in the new economy; the other is falling behind. The promise of our future can only be realized if Philadelphia moves forward together.” This statement perhaps holds even truer today, six years later.

There are many reasons to be excited about Philadelphia. Over the past decade I have seen an incredible transformation of Center City and many surrounding neighborhoods. Philly is decidedly now a place where people want to live, competitive with other Northeast destination cities (approximately 25,000 people moved from New York to Philadelphia between 2006 and 2012). However, as a whole, it is clear that no matter how many great restaurants pop up with name chefs, our city will never be truly prosperous and competitive with statistics like those in the Pew report.

Those of us who study statistics know that almost everything goes back to poverty. Crime, public health, education have all been linked to poverty, and our poverty rate is second only to Detroit amongst America’s largest cities. To anyone who cares about Philadelphia’s future, our number one goal needs to be working to reduce the city’s poverty rate, building wealth and equity for those currently lacking.

Certainly it is not easy (there are generations of approaches and literature on the topic), but our city’s positive trends give Philadelphia a new, unprecedented, opportunity. When a city is bleeding population, fighting to save its downtown core, it is very hard to combat citywide poverty. But that’s not us anymore. We need to focus on the trends that show a city of stability and growth, and determine how to capitalize on those assets in struggling neighborhoods and communities. Left unchecked we will continue to be two Philadelphias, but if we intelligently seize the opportunities afforded by our recent growth trends, Philadelphia may come to achieve its true potential.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Universal Transportation Card

By Greg

For many Americans, a driver’s license represents freedom. It is our de facto government-issued photo ID in this country for just about everything. However, it is inextricably linked to its primary raison d’etre—the right to drive a car. Yes, you can order a non-driver photo ID card, but it is still issued by the state’s department of transportation. No matter how you cut it, your identity in the USA is linked to a car culture.

In Governor John Hickenlooper’s speech last week in Philadelphia he talked about the “freedom” to have transportation options—the right to have access to mass transit as well as auto-centric infrastructure. What if we applied this philosophy to transform our national ID card into a universal transportation license?

This could be a single card that serves both as a driver’s license and metro card, usable on any region’s mass transit system. You could load money onto your transportation card just like you do now on your Metro Card, Charlie Card, or Clipper Card. This card would have a real functional benefit, eliminating the status quo where each transit system has its own fare card. It could universalize the nation’s metro transit networks.

Imagine a single card providing access to all modes of transportation, all across the country. Suburban and rural youth would still cherish the freedom of the driver’s license, while their counterparts in more urbanized areas would grow up using the same card on the bus and subway, to get to school or visit friends. Business and leisure travelers could use the card on any transit route, anywhere they go.

The card would evolve to represent the true face of our nation’s transportation—not one dominated by the automobile, but one where people get around different places in different ways, all equally important to our civic and national identity. Now, when asked to show photo ID, we would no longer pull out a plastic symbol of car culture. Rather we would show an ID that is truly democratic, associated with freedom of mobility of all kinds, of all people, of all places, across this great, diverse nation of ours.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Big Ideas Are Possible



By Greg

Last night hundreds of people came out to honor the student winners of the 2013 Ed Bacon Student DesignCompetition. The event was inspiring, celebrating visionary ideas for the future of Philadelphia from some of the world’s best and brightest young designers. This year’s winning team hailed from Cornell, with runners up from University of Maryland, University of Nottingham, University of Tennesee-Knoxville, and National University of Singapore.

The event also featured a keynote address from Edmund N. Bacon Prize winner, Colorado Governor and former Denver Mayor, John Hickenlooper. I met Hickenlooper once before in 2009, and both times he was easy going, down-to-earth, and totally visionary, with a firm belief that realizing big ideas is possible. Far from a career politician, he was previously a geologist and a beer brewer (owner of Wynkoop Brewing Company). I’ll also mention he’s a Philadelphia-area native and he and I share an alma mater (Wesleyan University).

In Hickenlooper’s talk he described his work creating a more livable city in Denver, and promoting freedom (his word) by spearheading one of the nation’s largest mass transit projects in history—giving people a choice of how to move around the region. He made these big visionary ideas seem so obvious and achievable. Hearing Governor Hickenlooper last night took me back to my visit to Denver in 2009, and I want to relate an experience from that trip:

I traveled to Denver for a conference, arriving a few hours early. There was a baseball game that afternoon, and I decided a sunny day at the ballpark would be a good way to while away a few hours. I asked about the best way to travel to the stadium. “Walk,” replied the smiling woman behind the hotel desk.

I left the convention center and walked a few blocks until I arrived at the 16th Street Mall. What I saw stopped me in my tracks. It was a real pedestrian street, closed to car traffic, and amazingly vibrant. The street was packed with people eating at cafes, shopping, pushing strollers, watching street performers. A free shuttle cruised down the 1.25 miles of car-free zone for those who wanted a rest or a quick ride.

As a Philadelphian, this sight made me green with envy. Our fair city had its own pedestrian mall not too long ago. Twelve blocks of Chestnut Street were closed to automobile traffic in the mid-1970s. However, in the late 1990s cars were permitted again, Chestnut was in sad shape, and many blamed the pedestrian mall. However, others argue that Philly never did the pedestrian street the right way. Whatever the reason, it didn’t work in Philly, but it succeeds magically in Denver.

The 1.4 mile walk from the convention center to Coors Field took me through the LoDo district—a hip, downtown neighborhood with beautifully restored historic buildings housing destinations like the Wynkoop brew pub. Just beyond LoDo is Coors Field. The first thing that I noticed is that the stadium is located right downtown, surrounded by mixed-use buildings, and less than a half mile from the city’s main train station. The next thing I noticed is that it is not surrounded by parking lots. Many fans were clearly parking at downtown garages and walking to the stadium, maybe stopping at restaurants and attractions before or after the game.

Coors Field was built in 1995. In the late 1990s, Philadelphia was looking at potential locations for our new sports stadiums. It was thrilling to consider the possibility of a stadium at 30th Street Station, or at Broad and Spring Garden Streets. At the end of the day, Philly could not get it done. While the Linc and Citizen’s Bank Park are nice fields, they are isolated, far from downtown, surrounded by a sea of parking. They do nothing to help downtown businesses and attractions. There is no synergy, nowhere to walk to. As I watched the Rockies take on the Padres, I silently bemoaned another lost opportunity for my hometown.

At the conference, I learned about another Denver achievement that made me even more envious. It’s called Fast Tracks—a $6.5 billion, twelve-year investment to build a 119-mile transit system for Denver, including six new rail lines. It is being financed by an increase in the sales tax approved by voters in 2004. Fast Tracks required vision, leadership, and true regional cooperation. Meanwhile, back in Philly any project to create new transit lines seems to fall by the wayside, while SEPTA recently announced a $4.7 billion shortfall.

This takes me back to the present, sitting there, listening to Governor Hickenlooper’s speech last night, and thinking about the future of my own city. Philadelphia is at a turning point. Our city is finally gaining population, has a thriving downtown, and is well positioned for greatness. But we need bold, visionary, gutsy leadership to get there. Seems to me Philly’s current leaders should be turning to this hometown boy for a few pointers.

Of course, all is not rosy in Denver; the city has fiscal issues, and higher poverty and unemployment rates than the national average. There are also significant differences. Philadelphia is a much larger city, in the center of a larger metro region. Still, for whatever reason, Denver has succeeded in some big, bold, visionary initiatives, where similar efforts in Philly fell flat (did I mention Denver has had bike sharing since 2009?).

I hope that the next wave of Philly leaders take a cue from Governor Hickenlooper and truly believe that big, visionary ideas are necessary and achievable. That we can stop saying “no,” and start saying “yes.” Yes, we can foster regional cooperation and help SEPTA become a great transit system. Yes, our next major stadium will be downtown. Yes, we can invest in pedestrian-only streets. Yes, we can have bike sharing. Yes, we can have a great, livable city that attracts residents and businesses and becomes famous not for one specific initiative, but for being a place where our leaders and citizens feel confident that big ideas are truly possible.