Monday, December 29, 2008

A Dire Situation

On Saturday there was an article on the front page of the Inquirer about Travelers Aid. This is a social service organization, whose board I sit on, that provides housing and support for homeless families in Philadelphia, and that (until recently) has provided services for assisting stranded travelers.

In the city's recent budget cuts, Travelers Aid's entire budget for stranded traveler services was eliminated, leaving no help for this population. What does this mean? In short, there will be literally thousands of people added to Philadelphia's street homeless next year.

- There are over 10,000 people who become stranded in Philadelphia each year

- Over 3,000 people contact Travelers Aid Philadelphia (TAP) for assistance each year; of these, 40% (1,200 persons) are stranded in Philadelphia and are seeking to leave Philadelphia; 60% are residents of the City seeking shelter here.

- TAP provides crisis case management, temporary shelter, food, and transportation assistance (which is usually needed for only a few days) to these 1200 stranded travelers each year.

- From July 1, 2008 through November 30, 2008 we have been contacted by 1,385 persons asking for assistance.

- Beginning November 11, 2008 we stopped providing transportation, food, and shelter to everyone except stranded families. By December 15, 2008 all of our services ended.

- For the past 30 years, Travelers Aid has had contracts with the City of Philadelphia for assisting stranded travelers.

- Travelers Aid can help stranded travelers for less than $200 per person. That is much less than the cost to the City in dollars to have them on the streets.

You can find more information online here. If you are looking to make a last-minute, end-of-year charitable donation to help those in need, please donate to Travelers Aid here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Real anchors

On November 20th, Greg Heller wrote about the value of anchor institutions in reengaging and redeveloping urban neighborhoods. His piece focused on what Penn students affectionately call “Fro-Gro,” the Fresh Grocer supermarket, and how it helped change a street and a neighborhood. However by focusing on what real estate agents call the 100% corner (where all the traffic is), Greg skirted some of the more complex issues that surround the development of the entire 40th street corridor as it stretches from Locust to Chestnut. Heller praises Penn’s successful transformation of the 40th street corridor into a neighborhood center. However having lived on Penn’s campus and having considered West Philadelphia my home for several years (off and on) I respectfully disagree on at least one aspect of his assertion; I wonder if the entire development truly is a neighborhood center. While clearly Fro-Gro and the movie theatre are frequented by the larger University City community, I am not sure the rest of this stretch, and the adjacent restaurant row on 40th and Chestnut, are frequented by West Philadelphians so much as Penn associates.

Readers should understand that I don’t mean to criticize the entire redevelopment effort, I only question its role in West Philly’s daily life. Moreover I simply state this as a hunch: if someone were able to show me data proving that everything from Qdoba to New Dheli are frequented by people living in West Philadelphia but not students at Penn (anecdotal or otherwise) I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Ultimately what I think the true story of 40th Street is, is one that shows that significant investment, coupled by significant patience and experimentation is key to transforming a neighborhood. It is a task best realized by those anchor institutions such as universities.

*

The 100% corner at 40th and Walnut is pretty impressive, both architecturally and programmatically, there is a movie theatre, a bar, a supermarket, an art gallery, a student newspaper, a community center and a small bakery. The shopping center to the Suth, on 40th, is less so, filled largely with chain stores that would easily fit in any mall, with the noteable exception of a used book and a music store. Along Chestnut, older buildings are host to local restaurants serving international food. These three or four blocks have three different, but interrelated stories that are important for all those interested in urban redevelopment.

40th street used to be considered the far edge of Penn’s campus, no man’s land for its well-heeled students whose parents would forbid them from entering the wilds of West Philly. When Penn wanted to stabilize the neighborhoods surrounding it, following the shooting death of one of its students in the 90’s, it rightfully made 40th street a central focus. Between Locust and Walnut on 40th is a small shopping center with a Q’doba, a Ben & Jerry’s, medical offices, a Radio-Shack, a Chinese food restaurant, a bagel shop, a used book-store ( Last Word Books, run by local bluegrass musician Larry) and a music and record store The Marvelous. It is a “tenanting mix” that seems largely to appeal to the Student population with a few strategic shops (Last Word, Marvelous) aimed at establishing authenticity and local appeal. Someone at Penn spent a lot of time agonizing over who would go in this building. And yet it remains kind of cheap and inauthentic (except of course for the Last Word and The Marvelous), and it is all related to the cheap office park construction that it is housed within. I would venture a guess that even the Farmers market across the street is frequented more by Penn Students than by University City residents. This is not to say that this is not a successful project, but rather it is not naturally a neighborhood institutions.

Along Chestnut, instead, you have several old restaurants, Indian and Mexican, which have been there forever, and feel far more lived in. These are restaurants that moved into old buildings, renovating them to serve the student and Penn staff population, one that was searching for cheap and tasty food. When Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work The Life and Death of Great American Cities (sigh, yes that one again), talked about the value of old buildings, she stressed that it was their latent value and cheap rent which made them critical for redeveloping neighborhoods. Without the critical investment by independent restaurateurs this stretch would never have attracted the HUB, the new upscale apartment building on 40th and Chestnut. Despite the recent upgrade to one of the cheap Indian food joints, and the new condos, this place still feels remarkably authentic, and I would venture a guess that they are frequented as much by neighborhood residents as they are by Penn affiliates, whether or not as Heller notes that those blocks on Chestnut “still feel dowdy and kind of identity-less to me. It’s the bright yellow signs on 40th street, and the parking lots mid-block on Chestnut that make it seem uncared for and unsafe at night.”

On the 100% corner you have both impressive architecture, and impressive additions to a wider community. Penn continues to fund The Rotunda, an independent community center operated out of an old church, and expended much of its own private capital to help make sure that both the cinema and the supermarket were built to higher architectural standards. All of this is to say that great projects and great architecture sit at a nexus: those hard-to-finance projects, sit in hard-to-finance buildings. Great projects require significant commitment by those creating them, and this commitment is often manifested in interesting buildings, whether they are old churches barely held together, but by love and volunteerism, and those cathedrals to modern living, the structured parking above a grocery store.

The real contribution Penn made to this community, and the thing which anchor institutions would be wise to learn, is that investment in a community is not simply about building one big building, but slowly tapping into different market segments, letting many to grow naturally, and to both redevelop old properties and to construct new boring ones. It’s kind of like diversifying your stock portfolio. You don’t need one big-money item. You can slowly develop your portfolio through a diverse range of small investments. , your investments can be cheap and with impact (the boring buildings on locust) can be slow and independent (like the restaurants of chestnut) not just big and splashy (Fro-Gro, etc).

*

What Penn has done has been, simply put, spectacular. It has done it because it had the will, the money, and the patience, to do it and do it right. Calling it a neighborhood retail center requires shifting the locus of that neighborhood to Penn’s campus; by and large the majority of the visitors to all these institutions are Penn affiliates. And it is that which underscores the true transformative effect of Penn, one that hasn’t always been purposeful. The surrounding neighborhoods are populated by Penn (and other university) students, staff and faculty, and they have been living there for close to twenty years. So perhaps calling it a neighborhood center isn’t so far off, because Penn is part of the neighborhood…. But that’s another story.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Spend It on Trains

Happy Boxing Day, everyone!

If you are looking for something to bide the time this weekend, I recommend taking a look at Neal Peirce's column. It is very much related to the question I've raised here of how our stimulus dollars will be spent.

This week, Peirce starts with the premise of Barack Obama's and Joe Biden's planned train ride from Philadelphia to the inauguration. The question Peirce raises is how much this symbolic emphasis on transit will translate to actual policy.

The need for investment in transit is clear. Peirce quotes Amtrak's president, Thomas Downs:

“The equipment status is near collapse . . . Every locomotive needs to be rebuilt. Ditto almost every passenger car. Tracks speeds keep getting lower, equipment out of date. The system is starved for capital.”

Not to mention:

"There’s little doubt the public wants modern high-speed rail service–Just note Californians’ recent approval of $9 billion for a 220-mile per hour line to link all major cities from Sacramento to San Diego. Regions from the Midwest to Texas to Florida, the South’s Piedmont area to the Pacific Northwest, need to make parallel progress soon."

However:

"Will railroads get a break in the massive economic stimulus package now being debated (and fiercely fought over by states and localities)? . . . without strong presidential backing, rails could too easily lose out as not being 'shovel ready' . . ."

Read the full column here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Smart Stimulus

The Holiday Season is upon us. As we celebrate with friends and family, it is important for us all to remember the challenges that face our nation and the opportunities that await us in 2009.

PolicyLink, the Oakland-based "national research and action institute" reminds us of one of these opportunities in a newly-released, four-page policy paper called "Stimulus for Whom? Using Federal Infrastructure Investment to Chart a Brighter Future for All."

The paper raises an important question about how our much-talked-about federal stimulus dollars are going to be used. The paper explains:

"Professional organizations and coalitions across the country are developing lists of infrastructure projects that are 'ready to go' or 'shovel-ready.' While these lists demonstrate the vast need for infrastructure investment, most of them do not provide a useful way to identify projects that will generate equitable outcomes for the most distressed communities."

The paper argues:

"For the recovery package to truly be equitable, it must focus on three priorities: 1. Strengthen cities; 2. Create jobs for those who need them most; and 3. Fix aging infrastructure and focus on expansion of our transit systems."

Later:

"By targeting the infrastructure challenges that lie at the root of poverty in America—from inadequate public transit to crumbling schools, water systems, and parks—this recovery package could dramatically expand opportunity for all people."

We have the opportunity to start investing in our sustainable urban areas, cost-effective and fuel-efficient modes of mass transit, and job programs for those who need it most. However, there is a very real threat that we will squander this money if we rush to invest it without a smart plan and forward-looking priorities.

Read the full PolicyLink paper for a more detailed discussion on this important topic.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Design Review


Source: DVRPC

The Inquirer ran an editorial on Saturday endorsing the concept of the Planning Commission creating a design review board. Alan Greenberger, the Planning Commission's executive director, announced the concept at a recent commission meeting. This is a great step forward for Philadelphia, if we can get it right.

Here's the back story: In Philadelphia when developers apply for a building permit, there is no legislated venue for discussing the proposed building's design. In many cases the Planning Commission is not a mandatory part of the process. At the same time, because of our broken zoning, the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) must hear most projects. Design is not one of the elements that the ZBA is supposed to be dealing with. Yet, often being the only step between a project and its building permit, the ZBA has gone way beyond its purview and dealt with design issues.

Recently Mayor Nutter appointed a highly qualified ZBA, and asked that board to stick to its Charter-mandated role. That means no design review. However, if the zoning board is not dealing with design, who is going to deal with these issues? At what point do qualified professionals help ensure that we are getting high-quality developments? Where do concerned citizens and civic groups go to air concerns about a proposed building's architecture, planning, or amenities?

Philadelphia has seen the impact of its lack of design review over the years. The city is marred with suburban-style development in dense urban areas; rowhouses with front driveways destroying the pedestrian experience; dead, blank walls facing onto busy shopping streets. In short, Philadelphia has gotten building projects that other cities would not tolerate.

Other cities avoid some of these problems through design review. The list of cities with design review includes Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Memphis, Nashville, Oakland, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, Seattle.

It is worth noting that there are key examples of cities that lack design review. These include Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. However, these cities are built out and have very high market values, ensuring that developers will not waste their time on anti-urban projects. On the other hand, the list of cities that have design review includes some strong-market cities like Boston and Seattle.

Design review takes on vastly different forms. Generally it is a board of experts who review a project's design, as part of the permitting process.

In some cities the design review board hears every single project that requires a permit. In others, only projects of a certain scale or importance. In some cities design review enforces a written set of guidelines. In others it is more subjective. In some cities it is a one-and-done process. In others, developers have to come back at multiple stages. In some cities, the board is made up of mainly architects. In others, a mix of designers, business people, and developers.

I will not delve any deeper into the variations on design review. However, if you are interested, take a look at DVRPC's report Promoting Civic Design Excellence (for full disclosure, I was one of the report's authors). You can download the report here, and the design review section starts on page 55.

Speaking of this report, which was an agenda for the Nutter administration, funded by the William Penn Foundation, the Inquirer made a nice reference to it in Saturday's editorial:

"In a forward-looking report early this year, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission catalogued these faux pas and urged city officials to give design a higher priority, as many other cities are doing. Now, Nutter appears to be delivering on his pledge to make urban design a priority by revitalizing the long-dormant Planning Commission."

Design review is an important step toward Philadelphia gaining a stronger focus on planning and design -- focusing on how the built environment impacts the city in which we live and work. Design review will complement other strong measures that the Nutter administration has taken toward this goal -- including attracting Andy Altman as Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, supporting the zoning code rewrite, and making sound appointments to the Planning Commission.

However, design review is no silver bullet. While the Planning Commission has gotten a stronger voice under Mayor Nutter, it is still not a legislated part of the development review process, in many cases. We are moving toward a stronger, permanent role for planning, but the situation is still somewhat tenuous.

Also, surely developers are fearing design review will be just another road block in an already convoluted and expensive development process. However, there are plenty of cities with design review AND a much more streamlined development process than we have in Philadelphia. The two are not mutually exclusive.

To get this right, the administration will have to focus on fixing the overall development review process. As I mentioned in an earlier post, developers want nothing more than consistency. If design review can be part of a well-choreographed and easily navigable process that adheres to a written schedule, then we may finally be on our way to attracting major development, and ensuring it is of a high quality.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bikeshare's Marketshare

It’s the holiday season, and in an effort to battle the shortened hours of daylight, my friends have found numerous excuses to throw parties — be they for the holidays, the end of exams or birthdays. Friends the city over have heightened their consumption of alcohol and produced prodigious amounts of palpable camaraderie. However, being bike-bound in wintry Philadelphia, and trying to attend all these events can be difficult. Chugging through the rain on a cold dark night from West Philadelphia to Center City, out to Fairmount, and back up to even farther West Philly, proved to be a test of will as much as it was a product of my graduate student thrift. It also hit home the main problems that would face a bike-share program in a mid-Atlantic fairly large city.

For those of you who may not be aware, a group in Philadelphia has been working to start a bike-share program — similar to those in Paris and Washington D.C. Bike-sharing is a system, much like Philly Car-Share, where members can rent vehicles for short periods from pods throughout the city. An entity manages a fleet of bikes scattered throughout the city that members can pick up at one bike corral and drop off at another. These bikes are usually grouped in corrals or pods of eight or nine, at any given site, and one of the trickier parts of bike share planning is figuring out how to maintain an appropriate mix of bikes and spaces so that the flow can be efficiently managed.

Bike-share proponents in Philadelphia argue that the City should build a bike-share network with pods stationed only approximately 2 blocks apart, as is the case in Europe’s most successful Bike-share programs in Lyon and Paris. To do that in Philadelphia’s center city alone would require over 1,000 bikes and 117 bike stations. When Montreal recently implemented its impressive bike-share program, the City spent nearly $9 million, around $3,600 per bike. Philadelphia could easily spend $3,800,723 on a bike share program that would only penetrate the central business district (CBD). That’s a pretty hefty price tag.

When proponents of bike sharing insist that the City of Philadelphia should mimic Paris, more than just copying the Place de la Concorde and Champs-Élysées along the Parkway, they insist that the city copy an initiative that was unprecedented in scope. While we should always strive to model ourselves on best practices, the Parisian model in many ways is an accident. As a recent article in Spacing Toronto puts it:
“To be certain that its American rival would not beat it out a second time, JCDecaux submitted a revised offer that far surpassed what the city had imagined: 20,600 bikes and a network of 1,450 stations so dense that no point within the city would be more than 300 meters away from the nearest station. Clear Channel had clearly lost and Parisians woke up to the world’s largest bike sharing network. The new system, the unlikely fruit of intense competition for advertising market share between Clear Channel and JCDecaux rather than any ecological good intentions, now made it possible for Parisians to pick up and drop off a bicycle anytime and anywhere in Paris.”
JCDecaux and Clear Channel are not likely to compete for the Philadelphia market as intensely. There are demographic reasons — Paris is far wealthier with more of its wealth within the city boundaries — and technical ones — Paris does not have nearly as much public advertising space as Philadelphia (or nearly any American city); thus any ad space introduced by bike share pods (as is the typical financing structure) is worth all the more. Philadelphia should be wary of copying Paris for other reasons. Parisian weather is fairer than ours, and they live in buildings that are not conducive to bike-ownership (no-one would want to cart a bike up those narrow stairs), and so when bike-sharing was introduced it was able to tap into a long simmering need.

All of this brings us back to that awfully cold night I biked between three different neighborhoods. Those of us who are pro bike sharing may bitch about the weather, but we are willing to bike in winter, in the wet and the wind. But we already own bikes, and may, or may not, need to actually use bike-share. We are also far more likely to bike amongst the city’s many neighborhoods. It’s important to realize how similar to transit biking is. Transit planners lust after the no-transfer-trip, where a traveler can get somewhere without switching between lines or modes; it remains to be seen if bikers want to simply go between home and work, or if people are willing to run more than one errand on a bike.

These kinds of questions are critical for building a bike-share program because they create the criteria upon which distribution is based. Do you need to build a system that maximizes the connection between specific neighborhoods and the CBD, or do you want a system that allows people to bike from one neighborhood to another? When real estate developers boast about “creating markets” what they are actually talking about is tapping into un-realized purchasing power. A successful bike-share taps into such a demand. The problem is, without a market study, you could just be drilling in a dry desert, coming up with nothing but sand.

While we should dream big, we should build smart.

Inquirer Says: Invest in G-Ho

Phillyskyline.com's blogger Brad Maule wrote a terrific piece today about the Inquirer's bizarre article this morning, "In Philly, Southwest Center City is the place to buy." I thought it was very strange when I read it, and I was glad to see Brad explain the reasons why (far better than I could) on his blog today.

While we're on the topic of profiling neighborhoods, though. What about this idea? Every month the Inquirer runs a nice long piece with photos, profiling a different neighborhood. What a great way to celebrate what we have, and for newcomers to learn about the fascinating and diverse places in our fair city. Let me know your thoughts on this.

Monday, December 15, 2008

How We Do Business


Source: www.fccc.edu

Today I want to talk about how Philadelphia does business with corporations and developers.

Last week, Philadelphia Orphans Court Judge John W. Herron ruled that the Fox Chase Cancer Center, currently located in Northeast Philadelphia cannot expand into neighboring Burholme Park to build new hospital facilities. According to the Inquirer:

“Herron said that public parks were protected by a common law rule, known as the ‘public trust doctrine,’ that has been part of Pennsylvania law since the early 1900s.’Simply stated, so long as a community or neighborhood actively uses dedicated parkland, the city is required to hold such land in trust for their use,’ the judge wrote.”

This issue has been hot in the Philadelphia papers recently, but has been brewing for years now. I bring this issue up because it is the latest example of a legal or quasi-legal body making a decision that stood against the wishes of the Mayor, City Council, and/or other public bodies, with the prospect of losing jobs and development as a result of the decision.

The Inquirer reported:

“Fox Chase wanted an 80-year lease for a $1 billion expansion over 25 years that would create more than 4,000 jobs, proponents said./Plans called for construction of ‘as many as 18 large buildings between four and nine stories high through the very center of the lush park,’ … ‘Mayor Nutter, City Council, and the Fairmount Park Commission had approved the park lease. Nutter spokesman Doug Oliver said that the mayor still supported Fox Chase's using the park but that he was willing to work with the center to locate other land or facilities in the city. ‘The decision could have a devastating impact’ on Fox Chase's expansion efforts, Oliver said, adding that the administration would ‘do everything we can to insure Fox Chase's continued presence in Philadelphia.’”

In some ways, this scenario is similar to the issue of Unisys’s proposed move to Center City back in September (that I blogged about here). Unisys was considering moving its corporate offices to Two Liberty Place, downtown, where it would have leased less than 10% of the building space. As an incentive to seal the deal, the City Commerce Department promised Unisys that it could violate the site’s zoning and install a corporate sign two-thirds of the way up the building tower.

This promise annoyed the building’s lead tenant, Cigna (who had no sign on the skyline). Also, many saw this as setting a dangerous precedent. If every minor tenant could have a sign somewhere on the shaft of the building they lease, Philadelphia’s skyline would become a monstrosity of advertising. No city in America allows this – instead restricting signage to the bottom or top of a building. Even in sign-crazy places like the strip in Las Vegas and Times Square there are very careful sign controls.

It turns out that the Commerce Department had no authority to promise a zoning change. The Mayor's office exerted pressure on the Zoning Board of Adjustment to make the exception and grant the variance. However, the Zoning Board is a quasi-legal entity, with the sole job of judging whether there is financial or physical hardship. There clearly was none, the board ruled against Unisys, and the company decided not to locate in Philadelphia.

These two episodes bring up the tenuous issue of how much we are willing to sacrifice (and in these cases, bend the law) in the name of economic development. In both cases powerful City leaders urged the deciding body to rule in favor of a company that would bring jobs and cachet for the city. However, in both cases the deciding bodies made their judgment based on their legal purview, not the potential for economic stimulus.

Generally, we do want our legal and quasi-legal bodies to follow their mandated roles, and not make exceptions whenever a big company knocks on the door. However, as a city we don’t want to keep losing business to the suburbs. The question is: How do we balance these two concerns?

The answer has less to do with the decisions themselves, and everything to do with the consistency of the decisions. If public agencies and elected officials give companies the perception that they will get what they want, then companies will spend the time and money to go to court or to the Zoning Board. In both of these examples, the companies ended up frustrated, because they had the support of the Mayor, spent valuable resources, then lost.

Wouldn’t it be easier if our public bodies encouraged companies to look for alternatives in the beginning, rather than putting their support behind actions that could end up in failure?

Of course, similar efforts in the past to push through projects have been successful — a fact that surely emboldens public officials to keep trying. However, pushing companies to pursue these uncertain endeavors is not a viable way of doing business. Perhaps episodes like Fox Chase and Unisys will start to change the perception of how much risk is really involved.

At least in the case of the Zoning Board, it is a new thing that the board values its mandated role over all else. In the past, the board’s decisions were much more arbitrary, factoring in issues such as architecture, interior amenities, and yes, economic development. However, Mayor Nutter’s promise of a new day and a new way resulted in his appointing a Zoning Board that would stick to the letter of the law — even, it turns out, when the letter of the law contradicted the will of the Mayor.

Companies want nothing more than consistency. They care less about how much it costs, and more about getting a dependable timeline and schedule for what steps a project needs to go through, what hoops need to be jumped through. In Boston, for example, that city’s development review process, Article 80, is much more cumbersome than Philadelphia’s. However, it generally runs smoothly and consistently.

A new day and a new way is not just about appointing the right people. It is about changing the way we do business. It is time for the administration and other public bodies to stop leading corporations down an uncertain road. The City should only promise what it can really deliver. Otherwise, the Commerce Department should help companies find a viable alternative, at the beginning of the process, not after they have spent time and money on a lost cause.

If the Commerce Department had not offered a zoning variance it could not deliver… If the Mayor, City Council, and other public bodies had tried to talk Fox Chase out of pursuing its Burholme Park plan, and pushed for alternatives early on… If every time a company or developer comes to town they know exactly what they’re getting and how long it will take… then Philadelphia will have embraced a new way, and will be on the road to spurring economic growth.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Calendar Party Tonight

If you're looking for something to do tonight in Philly, I recommend the PhillySkyline Calendar party:

Tonight, Thursday December 11th
7-9:00 PM
Conspiracy Showroom (2nd and Poplar)

To quote PhillySkyline.com: "Calendars. Prints. Beers. Party."

Hope to see you there. More info here.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Knock Down I-95



John Norquist apparently made the most of his visit to Philadelphia to receive the award from the Ed Bacon Foundation. He met with a number of people while here, and even got some comments into the Inquirer today and on PlanPhilly.

In today's paper, he calls for tearing down I-95. Many people are not aware that we are planning to rebuild I-95 entirely in the coming decades. Why not save a ton of money and tear it down instead?

In Norquist's keynote talk on Tuesday night, he made the point that expressways are not a valuable form of urban highway. Surface boulevards can carry high volumes at traffic, but at slower speeds, and allowing pedestrians to cross — restoring physical connectivity. Because so many cities built highways along their rivers in the 1950s-70s, when we replace expressways with boulevards today it often clears many a barrier between cities and their waterfront assets.

Of course, Norquist was not the first to suggest the idea of removing I-95. The idea of removing or burying the expressway came up throughout the Penn Praxis waterfront planning process. However, burying the expressway acknowledges its need (and costs mega bucks). Norquist raises a more important issue: Do we really need high-speed expressways cutting through our cities, at all? In cities across the U.S., the answer has proven to be "No." A boulevard works just fine, and is much more urban.

The Inquirer quoted Norquist: "'New York's West Side Highway is gone,' he said. 'San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway — gone.' Milwaukee, Seoul — Interstate kablooie.' ... I-95 should never have been built through the city..."

Considering the fact that Norquist was in town receiving the Ed Bacon Foundation award, it would seem odd if I did not point out the fact that Ed Bacon was planning director when I-95 began construction (though the road was planned 15 years before he became planning director — but that's another topic for another time).

However, more important than placing blame is the fact that we have learned a lot since the 1960s. Cities across the country have shown the failings of urban expressways. The bottom line is, we are in the process, right now, of planning a major rebuilding of I-95. It would be a monumental error for our city to repeat this historical mistake.

Jane Jacobs showed us all how to kill a highway in New York. The late Philadelphia attorney Robert J. Sugarman led a coalition to stop the Crosstown Expressway from being built at South Street. Maybe it's time for a new highway-stopping movement in Philadelphia.

Read Norquist's Inquirer comments here (scroll down to the second section, titled "Knock down I-95"), and PlanPhilly here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

“We cannot rest until ...

(Note: You have to read to the end of this post to discover what the title means)

We had a very successful awards ceremony last night to announce the winners of the 3rd annual Ed Bacon student design competition. Congratulations to all of the winners from Penn, Cornell, and Temple. I hope to have photos up on edbacon.org soon.

In the meantime, I thought some of my readers might be interested in my remarks from last night, talking about the connection between this competition, Ed Bacon, and the history of Ludlow's urban renewal planning in the 1950s and 60s. Enjoy!

* * * * *

Good evening and welcome to the third annual Ed Bacon Awards Ceremony. I’m Greg Heller, and I have had the honor to serve for four years now as President of the Ed Bacon Foundation.

We are gathered here tonight, for the third year in a row, to reward the hard work and bright ideas of the next generation. We are here tonight to celebrate the future.

When I stand up here each year, as a Philadelphian, I feel very humbled. One hundred thirteen students, from across the U.S. have spent their time focusing their energy on the future of our city.

It is really remarkable when you think about.

For three years in a row, this program has provided an urban design competition for students across North America, confronted those students with Philadelphia’s challenges and opportunities, exposed Philadelphians to new and exciting ideas for our own city, and brought us all together for one night each year, to celebrate the concept and reality of envisioning the future.

This program has only been possible with your support. And so, some thanks are in order.

[SKIPPPING AHEAD] ...

At this point, I would like to take a moment to talk about the significance of this year’s competition. In choosing Ludlow as the focus of REBUILD | REVIVE, our board of directors selected a site that was much more complex than in past years.

We challenged students this year to deal with the deep-rooted obstacles and opportunities of a living, breathing neighborhood. Ludlow is a distinct community, but it is also a place that exhibits problems similar to those in other parts of Philadelphia, and urban areas across the U.S.

As in past years, the site of this year’s competition has a strong connection with the Foundation’s namesake, Edmund Bacon – Philadelphia’s former planning director.

Ludlow was part of one of Philadelphia’s earliest urban redevelopment areas in the late 1940s. Two decades later, it was the target of some very creative, but ultimately less-than successful renewal approaches. John Gallery, who was working at the Planning Commission at the time, will tell you more about that a bit later.

The point I want to touch on is that Ludlow was an important focus of a lesser-known side of Ed Bacon’s work in Philadelphia.

Today Bacon is largely remembered for major downtown projects that he had a hand in. However, those who worked with him know that much of his career was dedicated to the problems of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, and especially the issue of low-cost housing. In fact, prior to his long tenure as planning director, Bacon headed the Philadelphia Housing Association, and before that, led a housing council in Flint Michigan.

Throughout his career Bacon attempted to discover the best approaches to the problems of housing and community renewal in disadvantaged areas. The success of that era’s programs is certainly debatable. However, it is clear that throughout Bacon’s career, he attempted to push Philadelphia’s redevelopment program away from the bulldozer approach, focusing instead on the rebuilding of older areas.

At a talk in Cleveland in 1949, Bacon said, “The very nature of urban blight itself is complex, elusive, difficult to define. The mere spending of money, clearance of areas or building of projects doesn’t necessarily constitute a valid attack on urban blight. … [W]e should involve the people of the neighborhood in the planning process itself. … Rehabilitation should be used wherever appropriate, closely tied in with clearance and new building.”

Just as he opposed wholesale bulldozing of buildings in many of these redevelopment areas, Bacon also opposed the clearance of people.

In 1965, at the National Planning Conference, Bacon said, “We propose to avoid the approach to urban renewal which is actually just the removal from the neighborhood of one group of people and the substitution of another. We propose to face squarely the real problems of the very worst areas and to carry our action programs to meet them.”

Then, the next year at Shippensburg State College, Bacon said,

“The time has come for a new concern for the underprivileged, for a fresh approach to the problems which surround them.”

Specifically talking about Ludlow in 1966, Bacon acknowledged that “Conditions here are pretty terrible and there is a large number of vacant and open houses,” but he believed it was possible to develop an affordable housing solution that would “give new hope to the neighborhood… without any dislocation … [and] would set a high standard of maintenance in each block of the community.”

The results of Philadelphia’s urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s are mixed. In some parts of the city, redevelopment succeeded, and we have long forgotten that some communities were once-desperate. In other cases, despite innovative approaches, some of our neighborhoods face the very same issues today that they faced forty years ago.

Today, Ludlow has received a new jolt of energy, thanks to the work of organizations like APM. However, there are still enormous challenges that need to be overcome. Philadelphia today needs fresh thinking and innovative ideas, compassionate and comprehensive strategies for harnessing Ludlow’s potential, and empowering its residents.

Here we see the connection between past, present and future. The work of the students in this room is the next iteration of a decades-long process. These students represent the promise of a new generation of urban thinkers, planners, designers, and leaders.

Tonight, by supporting the work of the next generation, we are paving the way for a new focus on the problems of our own time. I will leave you with one more quote that I think captures the essence of why we are here this evening:

“We cannot rest until every block of our cities is pleasant, healthful, beautiful and inspiring.”*

Thank you all for being here tonight to share in this celebration of ideas.

---
* Edmund Bacon, Quoted in "Students Urged to Focus on City Frontier," The Evening Bulletin, 10/23/1967.

Monday, December 1, 2008

PlanPhilly on Bacon Competition

PlanPhilly ran a nice piece today about the winners of the 3rd annual Ed Bacon student design competition. The article included an in-depth interview with the first-place team from Penn.

All of the winners will be honored tomorrow evening at the awards ceremony, featuring John Norquist as the keynote speaker. I hope to see you there!

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Cost of Parking



There was an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer today supporting Mayor Nutter's plan to increase parking meter rates, and to put in place a pilot program for cheap short-term parking in two downtown parking garages. The editorial explains the rationale behind this well-tested and time-proven strategy to encourage drivers to head straight for a garage, rather than circling the block, looking for a space.

There are plenty of models of this strategy around the nation, but my favorite is in the affluent town of Birmingham, Michigan (pictured above). In Birmingham there are numerous municipal garages, with clear signage showing visitors how to get to one from each block in the downtown. The garages are build with ground-floor retail wrapping them on major streets, so that they contribute to the lively urban atmosphere, rather than cutting up a shopping street with a blank garage wall.

The municipal garages are free for the first two hours, all the time. After that their hourly rate is still less than the hourly rate on street parking meters. Birmingham is truly jumping on a Friday night (think Main Street Manayunk), but many of the metered spaces are still empty, even when the main drag is jam packed with vehicles, and the sidewalks and restaurants are swarming with people.

It takes time for people to catch on to a new system, but Birmingham made it impossible (even for first-time visitors like me) to be confused about the system. On all of those lamp poles shown in the photo above you can see a white sign, sticking out over the sidewalk. The signs say "First 2 hrs free in all the parking docks." There are other signs that say "Parking docks are always cheaper than meters." At each block there are large, clear signs showing how to get to the parking garages.

This kind of signage and public education campaign will be important if Philadelphia hopes to implement this kind of forward-looking parking policy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Institutions as Community Assets



“Every real-estate operator says ‘there’s no market here,’ and so we create a market from scratch.”

These were the words of Omar Blaik, the University of Pennsylvania ’s former Senior Vice President of Facilities and Real Estate Services, now working as a national consultant, delivered today during a talk at DVRPC. When Penn started its neighborhood investment strategy in the early 1990s, it was a controversial notion to focus heavily on community development and on real-estate development to improve the university’s attractiveness and competitiveness. It had many detractors. However, today, Penn’s redevelopment work is largely considered a success, studied and imitated by institutions across the U.S.

I bring up this topic because in Philadelphia’s new economy, much of the city’s employment base is focused on colleges, universities, and medical institutions – often known as Eds and Meds. These are institutions that Jane Jacobs argued made bad neighbors. However, Penn showed that with the right approach, institutions can tear down the barriers between town and gown, and invest in shared amenities for the institution and the neighborhood.

By studying the lessons of Penn, perhaps we can glean some insight for Philadelphia’s future. As institutions like St. Joe’s, Temple, LaSalle, the Fox Chase Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and others look to expand, there are many questions as to whether these expansions will end up creating a rift between institution and community, or leverage investments to create true community assets. These types of questions also surround the urban design impacts of the city’s two proposed casinos.

The way that our institutions develop has stunning impacts on their surrounding neighborhoods, and on our city at-large. This lesson is clearly shown in Penn’s dismal past and promising current investments. Let’s take another look at the Penn story.

* * * * *

Omar Blaik began his talk today by giving his audience a flavor of the daunting circumstances under which he began. Since the 1950s the university had developed defensive structures, forming a door-less, windowless wall on Walnut Street. In the early 1990s, the university published a guide for students advising them not to venture west of 40th Street.

Blaik invited a reporter from the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, to visit him in his West Philadelphia home to write a story about how it was actually safe and livable around campus. However, his secretary switched the meeting to Blaik’s office, last minute, telling her boss that she did not want the student journalist doing the interview off-campus at Blaik’s home, because it was not safe there.

One of the major keys to Penn’s revitalization strategy was to understand that it is not just about buildings. First it was about safety. Penn increased its police force, and installed pedestrian-scaled lamps in front of houses through the community. Next it was about living in the community. Penn created its famed mortgage program, incentivizing staff and faculty to live on campus. Then it was about education. Penn pumped money into the local public middle school, making it one of the best in the region, and attracting suburban families with young children to start looking at West Philadelphia.

Then it was about transforming the perception of the area surrounding campus. Penn replaced a large parking lot at 36th and Walnut Streets with a keystone building housing Penn’s new bookstore and street-level retail. Next it was about blurring the lines between campus and community. Penn had a major stake in developing the Fresh Grocer supermarket and the Bridge multiplex movie theater, with restaurants and retail attached.

Finally it was about attracting private investment. Dranoff renovated the West Bank building; the Hanover Company built Domus on land leased by Penn and purchased from the RDA; Terra Holdings built the HUB on Chestnut with Jose Garces’ celebrated new restaurant, Distrito; and the list goes on.

Blaik noted that this recent revitalization was intended to fix the mistakes of the 1950s-1970s. During that period, the Black Bottom neighborhood (memorialized on a wall at University City High School) was bulldozed by the RDA to build the University City Science Center. Then Penn built the aforementioned defensive architecture on the north side of its campus, cutting itself off from surrounding communities. Then the area declined, and blocks previously demolished for urban renewal sat vacant or became parking lots. The faculty all moved to the Main Line and the students all moved to Center City.

In reality, it is unclear how much the urban renewal era actually affected the socioeconomic shifts in the area around Penn. Had the Black Bottom remained, during the period when Philadelphia lost its industrial job base and a quarter of its population, it is possible (if not likely) that the decline around Penn would have been just as severe.

However, it is clear that the urban renewal era development did start a trend of poor urban design on campus, perpetuating a disconnect between campus and community. Blaik told the audience that he saw it has his job to “blur the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’” and to fight the trend of “subsidizing a lifestyle of living in the suburbs and commuting into the city.”

One interesting point Blaik made was that many universities now seeking to revitalize their campus in a way similar to Penn’s, are having a much harder time because they do not own huge quantities of land. By a strange twist of fate, Penn’s recent real-estate boom was largely made possible through the eminent-domain condemnation of huge tracts of land back in the 1960s. This was condemnation at a scale that never would be palatable today.

Another important point is the one I started with – the idea of building an economic market from scratch. No supermarket chain wanted to locate on Penn’s campus, because they claimed that the customer base was not there (Indeed the Census data was deceiving – failing to reflect students’ families’ incomes). However, the Fresh Grocer is now earning over $800 per square foot. Why could the more mainstream supermarket chains not see beyond the numbers and identify this enormous potential?

This fact gets to one of the greatest challenges of the planning profession: How to convince developers, the business community, the City, and the public, that planning and urban development can profoundly alter the look and feel, the image and perception of a place. Indeed, through sound planning and development, we have the power to create a market that never existed. The key is getting a consumer base to change their perception of an area, and be willing (if not anxious) to go there to shop, work, or live. In other words, Penn’s challenge was how to transform the perception of 40th and Walnut Streets from the edge of the earth, to a safe, vibrant, and attractive urban crossroads.

Much of this image-changing power has to do with the way buildings are constructed. Had Penn allowed a supermarket to build a huge parking lot in front of its store, as in the suburbs, the Fresh Grocer might have attracted some of its current clientele, but it surely would not have had the same transformative power as its current, street-level, urbanized design (The Fresh Grocer’s suburbanized store at 56th and Chestnut has shoppers, but did not positively transform its surrounding area). Coupled with the equally urban movie theater across the street, the two structures utterly redefined this intersection. The success of urban development has as much to do with its use as it does with its urban design, and the image of the surrounding area.

Blaik remarked on the remarkable diversity of the Fresh Grocer’s clientele – elderly residents from the nearby senior housing, an array of students, West African immigrants, nearby families, university faculty and staff. Penn certainly has its share of community tension, but with the Fresh Grocer, the Bridge, farmers markets and some of the new retail, Penn arguably created a tremendously successful link between the campus and community, in a way that seems seamless within the urban landscape.

* * * * *

Penn proved that Eds and Meds don’t have to be bad neighbors, if they can plan outside their campus walls, and invest in a way that builds a true nexus between town and gown. Penn used its financial resources to create shared amenities (like supermarkets, movie theaters, housing, and farmers markets) for both students and neighbors.

Penn has certainly gotten its share of criticism for its recent revitalization program. Penntrification is the buzzword for the displacement of existing communities, caused by Penn’s recent investments. I have contributed to this criticism, citing the fact that supporting existing residents in the face of rising costs was not part of Penn’s program. However, that burden really should fall on the City. City Council has the ability to implement programs that tackle this issue. I have written more about that.

Despite this criticism, Penn did a spectacular job taking on an almost insurmountable problem and turning it into a great success. It took an understanding of the link between crime, education, local amenities, transportation, and urban design in transforming an area. It took well over a decade to really get off the ground, with lots of brushes with disaster, and a healthy dose of skepticism along the way. It took people who understood how the market functions, what the next steps needed to be in Penn’s comprehensive strategy, and had the know-how to look beyond the campus.

One of Blaik’s key points was that “institutions need people who know city planning, not just campus planning.” Surely this lesson will be key for Philadelphia’s institutions to become better neighbors, incubators of community development, bastions of good urbanism, and anchors in a vital city. As we move ahead with other institutional expansions, and as we plan for the placement of two casinos, I hope that we all keep the complex, but critical lessons of Penn fresh in our minds.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Making the Connection

On November 15th, the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management hosted “Making the Connection: Transit Oriented Development – A Blueprint for Success.” The conference brought together Douglas Foy, Robert Cervero and officials from NJTransit (among others) and essentially produced a conference that was the equivalent of a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) obsessive policy wonk’s dream team.

For those of you who aren’t quite there and are wondering what TOD is: Transit Oriented Development is a planning paradigm that suggests that development should exploit the intrinsic link between transportation modes and neighborhood shape and density to create walkable communities around transit hubs.
Douglas Foy is one of the rare public officials who gets it on both the macro, and the micro level. When he was Massachusetts’ “development czar” under Governor Mitt Romney, the Commonwealth produced some of the most far-sighted, intelligent smart growth policies that I have seen. Under a variety of acts (Acts S and R 40, to name a few) the Commonwealth chose to provide those municipalities that adopted “smart growth” (i.e. controlled suburban growth) zoning codes, would be eligible for a whole slew of money to help them invest in their traditional town cores.

What made these acts so well crafted is not only that they pegged the release of some funds to the project’s adoption, but they gave counties $2,000 for every housing unit whose permits for construction were released (i.e., they gave incentives for the townships to get things moving fast. However, what really shows a deft touch here, was the fact that the commonwealth promised to cover the gap created by the added burden of a new child on the existing school budget. This way towns would not complain that new development would bring in additional children — gradually eating away at the dollars-per-child ratio and it takes a smart administrator to speak not in terms of his or her own goals, but in that of the people arguing for or against a given project..
Before I call attention to a few of the smarter things Douglas Foy said (that I think students of the transportation-land-use link should pay special attention to) I have to include two jokes of his, one a little more germane to the planning profession than the other (I will let you figure out which is which):

“In a European Heaven, the British would be the Police, the German's the Engineers, the French would be the Chef's, the Swiss the Administrators, and the Italians would be the lovers. In a European Hell the British are the Chefs, the Germans are the Police, the French are the Engineers, the Swiss are the lovers and the Italians are the Administrators...”
"Power corrupts, Powerpoint corrupts absolutely..."

However the real meat of Foy’s talk centered around a few principles and key insights. Foy gives a lot of attention to the role and function of the State Governments. This should not come as a surprise considering where he comes from, and why he was asked to speak. However, that should not discount what he has to say. If anything he hits the nail on the head. While federal mandates shape funding policy in many ways, the real implementation of transportation, housing programs, and the real shapers of our regional environment are the state agencies.
Doug Foy noted that those states that were the most effective at managing smart growth, were those that brought the providers of housing, layers of road and sewers and services together around one table. He recollected how he had to fight with the agencies that controlled waters and sewers in Massachusetts to allow the growth of capacity in old towns (they regularly required in their funding guidelines that new sewers and water lines be built away from urbanized areas). It is this marriage of policy, service delivery, and capital programming (i.e. the $$$s) of different agencies around one table, that promotes smart growth.

However, he stressed something that transportation advocates often forget. It’s not, in fact about the transit. It is about the pedestrian. Foy’s rule is that everybody should be within a short walk to buy a quart of milk. Richard Roberts (NJ Transit Chief Planner) pointed out later, in his derision of the planners’ sacred half mile circle, how quickly we tend to adopt to quick “rules” of thumbs that hide the thing we are really looking for.
Later on Robert Cervero made a very interesting point: Cervero, a rather famous land use and transportation planning researcher (yes, planners have crushes… one can have civic crushes, and planning crushes, and administrative ones as well) noted that his dream of TOD is a world with multiple chains of transit development (often compared to emerald necklaces, like Olmstead’s park systems) that enable a new form of heightened para-transit, jitneys to feather people between spokes of the system, etc. Again, it is not about the actual system itself, but about, ultimately, the mobility and accessibility of the people living in the neighborhoods and region.

This is important because by not planning for people, we will have a harder time communicating with the public. Steve Goldin a New Jersey Developer (CEO of InterCap Holdings) made salient reminders to planners of developers’ needs, and the importance of solid infrastructure developments that in essence provide surety to developers to take a risk there. However he stressed that the main barriers are those of people who fear changes in their property values or increase in local taxes.
By trying to talk about and communicate the merits of walkability and other jargon-filled idealistic dreams, we forget to engage in a meaningful conversation with, or address the needs of, our neighbors and our citizens. We should trust that if we don’t treat our neighbors like idiots we may even begin to emerge with more interesting ideas. 70% of all ballot initiatives related to transportation passed this election cycle, according to Foy.

Foy insisted, towards the end of his lecture, that the key to TOD reform was investment in a very specific technology: Mesh Networking. According to Foy, Mesh Networking enables broadband-like communication synchronization between devices that could revolutionize how we stay wired, allowing us to piggyback access to the internet off of other devices, not by invading their operating systems (I am not sure how it works, but that’s not the point). The point is, such Mesh Networking would enable us to provide cheap, on-time information to phones/PDMs etc. even across rural areas. Foy was essentially saying that in order to gain the support of rural areas, you need to show them that they too can benefit from investments and technologies that benefit transit; they too have vested interests.
What’s funny is that all this is less about planning, and more about negotiation. We need to figure out how to negotiate our way forward, addressing the core values of different constituencies, and finding avenues for investing for mutual benefit.

Introducing...

To all of my readers, please welcome UrbanDirectionʼs second blogger, Ariel Ben Amos. Ariel is a friend of mine who brings experience and insight in land use, transportation planning, and urban development, as well as a keen mind and an inquisitive personality. Ariel has worked at Mt. Airy USA, Penn Praxis, Neighborhoods Now, and the Mayorʼs Office of Transportation and Utilities in Philadelphia. He also spent two years in the Peace Corps in Albania. Look for his first post, coming soon!

Letter in the Inquirer

I had a letter printed in the Inquirer today about affordable housing. The editor shortened it because my original was too long. Below is the full letter I submitted:

To the Editor:

I was glad to see the Inquirer’s editorial (“Affordable Housing,” 11/12/2008), reminding us of the City’s efforts to implement inclusionary housing – that would require affordable housing units integrated in new market-rate developments. As the editorial reflects, this is a policy that most major cities have already adopted, and that is widely used across the board in several states (including New Jersey).

Philadelphia has many low-priced homes and apartments; however, they are predominantly clustered in very poor areas. Inclusionary housing makes sure that where new market-rate homes are being built, that a portion of the new homes are affordable. The result is that every neighborhood, no matter how upscale, maintains a pool of affordable units. Most American cities have recognized this kind of income integration as a critical goal.

However, it is important to remember that even the most successful inclusionary housing programs are not a silver bullet, and are not a replacement for public housing. In Philadelphia’s tenuous housing market, this would be an added cost to developers. It is an important program, but we need to implement it in a way that is legal and financially viable.

With inclusionary housing, developers must take a loss on the below-market units. For this reason, the courts have only found inclusionary housing to be legal when the City provides substantial developer incentives. Because the burden falls on the private sector, the affordable units cannot be priced too far below market. Thus, inclusionary housing has been much more effective at providing units priced for people of moderate income, than providing housing for the poor.

Inclusionary housing must be just one component of a larger strategy to provide affordable housing options in every neighborhood, at a variety of price points. Other tools at the City’s disposal include new tax credits for rental housing, and tax freezes or deferments for low-income homeowners.

The most significant tool, however, is increased funding for subsidized housing. The City’s resources are very limited here. We need more attention from Washington D.C. Unfortunately, the current presidential administration has been devastating for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and programs like Hope VI, that were effectively starting to make headway with new approaches for mixed-income housing development.

In this struggling economy we cannot put too much of the public burden on the private sector without true incentives to make affordable housing programs legal and viable. Philadelphia’s foray into inclusionary housing is a strong step that most major cities have already taken to ensure a range of housing price options in every neighborhood – creating a truly mixed-income and diverse urban landscape.

Sincerely,
Gregory Heller

Monday, November 10, 2008

Leadership and Policy: The Keys to Solving a Global Crisis


Image: http://www.upenn.edu/penniur/afteroil/

I attended a fascinating conference last week at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled “Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil.” Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the conference marks the 50th anniversary of the 1958 “Conference on Urban Design Criticism,” also sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and Penn.

In 1958, now-renowned figures like Jane Jacobs, Louis Kahn, Kevin Lynch, Ian McHarg, Lewis Mumford and I.M. Pei pondered the problems of their time, and forged a vision for the future. At this 2008 conference, contemporary American urbanists partook in the same exercise, but this time focusing on energy and climate issues as central to our global future. This conference also featured some bigwigs like Judith Rodin, Robert Yaro, and Neal Peirce, as well as many of Penn’s renowned faculty and local government officials.

Perhaps the best part of the conference was how international it was. So many of these types of programs typically include an array of American speakers all focusing on the insular issues of a wealthy, auto-centric nation, with struggling post-industrial cities, and booming suburbs overrun by strip malls and McMansions. It was refreshing to hear about a much broader and more complex range of urban issues from across the globe. For example:

  • Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology talked about the competitive advantage of allowing squatters to live in urban downtowns, because these residents would rely on far less in government services than if they lived in the poverty-stricken countryside. This note reflected the extreme efficiency of urban areas to provide services cost-effectively to a large number of people.
  • Samuel Babatunde Agbola, a professor at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria talked about the problem of convincing a host of provincial leaders to work together on regional transportation issues in Nigeria. This was an concept that struck a chord for the session moderator, Robert Yaro, who citied the over 900 municipal governments in the New York region that need to cooperate.
  • Jiang Wu, Deputy Director General of the Shanghai Urban Planning Administration Bureau laid out Shanghai’s vision of surrounding its city of 18 million people with nine new satellite cities of up to one million people each, while preserving 30% of the land surrounding Shanghai as permanent open space. This would be a top-down solution for centralizing land use and transportation while promoting land preservation.
  • Jonas Rabinovitch, now at the United Nations, but who formerly worked for Jaime Lerner, the renowned former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, explained Curitiba’s famous mass transit system that uses bus rapid transit to emulate the efficiency of a subway, but at much lower costs.
  • One of the most fascinating perspectives came from Adij Najam, of Boston University, who argued that if we viewed the planet Earth in the way that we view countries (GDP, levels of poverty, pollution, education rates, employment, etc.) that Earth would be a very poor country, indeed.

Several of the speakers brought up the fact that America’s new concern about energy is almost exclusively the result of rising gasoline prices. We have been here before. In the 1970s during the last major spike in gas prices there was a significant increase in awareness about energy issues. However, prices sank again, and when Philadelphia’s renowned city planner, Edmund Bacon, tried to host a “Post-Petroleum City Conference” in 1993, it fizzled due to lack of interest, and never got off the ground.

Certainly those present at Penn understood the profound crisis that our world faces. It is not just about energy, but about global warming and rising population – to name some of the largest threats to life as we know it. The conference raised some profound questions: How do we achieve the 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists feel will be necessary in the coming decades to avoid massive melting in the polar regions? How will we feed the estimated nine billion people who will be here, according to many estimates, less than fifty years from now?

It was evident at the conference that many of the experts dealing with these issues across the globe agree that cities offer our best – perhaps only – hope for addressing these problems. Cities are the most energy and resource efficient environments. They have the ability to house and transport large numbers of people; connect them cheaply with resources, jobs, transportation, and food; and leave much of our natural landscape for agricultural and natural uses.

In China, the government can engineer land-use policy to ensure that people live in compact cities and the natural lands stay open, as Jiang Wu discussed for Shanghai. However, most of the world does not have this kind of government-controlled land-use authority, certainly not here in the U.S. In our individualistic society, how do we take on these profound challenges?

In a panel moderated by Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, Andrew Revkin, New York Times’ Dot Earth blogger, talked about the difficulty of convincing newspaper editors to print news of environmental issues, because they are not matters of immediate concern. Newspapers report on the here-and-now, not the been-brewing-for-half-a-century and will-start-to-impact-us-in-the-next-couple-of-decades.

Of course, Americans have cared about environmental issues. One of the conference speakers remarked that many people are “tired of green.” He was referring to the current fad (?) of every product, company, and commercial having some kind of tie-in to environmental issues. Some experts feel that “green” has become the most profitable advertising tool of all time.

However, as Revkin noted, we are not going to solve the energy crisis through small-scale, individual action. It is great for Americans to be aware of environmental issues; however, turning off the lights, buying a certain product, and recycling are not even going to touch the tip of the iceberg. The kinds of solutions that America and other countries across the globe need are large-scale shifts in our lifestyles. That is a hard (perhaps impossible) sell for America.

The kinds of shifts we need in the U.S. will require a significant number of Americans to give up their cars or use them considerably less. Millions more people need to move to concentrated metropolitan areas. We need to invest in mass transit solutions to cut down on the carbon footprint of our transportation infrastructure. We need intercity rail to reduce our reliance on air travel. We need energy efficient homes and offices.

If it is going to be possible for America to achieve true strides in reducing our energy consumption and our carbon footprint, change will have to start at both the top and the bottom. This was a constant theme throughout the conference at Penn. In the Greater Philadelphia Region we have over 350 municipal governments, each with its own leadership, its own zoning, its own police, fire departments, and schools, and its own policies. However, the these local governments make some of the most significant policy in our nation – affecting land use and transportation decisions. As long as each of our local, county, and state governments only look out for their own geographic boundaries, we will get nowhere.

The first step to the kind of change we need is clearly leadership. American spoke last week electing a president who ran on a platform of change, and who has advocated for energy and climate issues as main priorities. It has been generations since America has seen true leadership, setting an example from the top for profound change.

However, leadership is not enough. Our nation’s leaders need a popular political mandate to shift policies in a significant way. This means that average Americans need to feel that issues of energy and sustainability are significant enough to win their vote, their letter or phone call to their congressman or senator. The issues that most effectively bring collective awareness and a call for crisis-level action are those that hit the pocketbook or strike close to home. Hurricane Katrina got us thinking about global sea rise. Increasing gas prices got us thinking about fuel shortage.

The bottom line is that in America, while we do not govern collectively, we do develop a collective ideology of what is important. We know that issues that impact us financially or socially at a local level, will gain our attention and our support. Andrew Revkin is right that environmental issues do not seem to be immediate to many Americans, right now. However, with the right leadership, and with the right policies Americans will both see the daily local impact of environmental issues, and be inspired to take action.

The question is, how to frame the issue so that it shows its immediacy to a wide spectrum of the American public? How do we create financial incentives to make these issues hit home on a day-to-day basis? How do we seize on local awareness of environmental repercussions (like Katrina), and tell the story on a national level, in a way that captures the hearts and minds of average Americans?

Which tools will work, will resonate, will be palatable to the American public are the questions that confront our lawmakers today. They are the challenges for the next presidential administration. However, what is clear is that only if our policy makers can provide true leadership, and answer these tough questions will we, in America, be able to start on the track of tackling our share of this global crisis.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Arts and Culture, and the New Philadelphia



It has been Phillies mania over the last couple of days, but this post is about a forum that took place earlier in the evening, before the final World Series game, in that ancient time when Philly’s baseball fate was still uncertain.

Young Involved Philadelphia hosted a panel discussion Wednesday night on “Philadelphia as a Center of Innovation.” The panelists were Meryl Levitz, James Kise, Ted Lewis, and Matty Hart. Interestingly, the discussion was directed almost exclusively on the topic of arts and culture as the heart of Philadelphia’s new, younger, hipper image.

Meryl Levitz talked about the challenges of attracting both visitors and permanent residents. She stressed the competitive advantage of Philadelphia to attract New Yorkers who want to own an affordable home and live in a transit-friendly, cosmopolitan place. However, she cautioned that many transplants from New York seek to maintain their NYC identity while living in their adopted city. Naturally this emerging dynamic creates serious challenges.

Jim Kise discussed his experiences in planning the Avenue of the Arts, and was emphatic in his belief in the potential for the Avenue of the Arts North (i.e., from City Hall to about Lehigh Avenue). He noted the strategy spearheaded by then-Mayor Rendell for Avenue of the Arts South, of attracting new development for several vacant pieces of land that were close enough together to build a new continuity of place, and establish an identity. This strategy will be critical for Avenue of the Arts North, but even more challenging considering the much larger distance and greater disinvestment.

Ted Lewis discussed the important role of artists in the early stages of gentrification (my word, not his). He cited the usual examples in New York (SoHo, Chelsea, Williamsburg), and stressed the potential for this type of pioneering in Philadelphia. He also discussed the trend of artists pioneering and then being priced out of neighborhoods. He raised the important point of the need for new policies to protect affordable housing and live-work spaces in revitalized neighborhoods with rising home prices.

(For more on this topic, see my related post from 10/23/08 below – "Equitable Gentrification" – and my op-ed in the Inquirer from June 2007).

Finally, Matty Hart talked about the role of artist as entrepreneur. He felt that the City and its Commerce Department were missing out on strategic investments to assist artists, by failing to view them as the small business owners that they essentially are. He suggested competitive loan programs for artists to purchase a printing press or other expensive supplies.

* * *

Overall, I was disappointed by the extent to which the discussion of arts and culture focused on the Avenue of the Arts and the Kimmel Center. Certainly all of the panelists are accomplished and knowledgeable leaders in their fields. However, Philadelphia is changing in profound ways, and I wonder whether the players who have been working here for years and decades understand the younger, hipper Philadelphia, and what it means for our social and civic landscape.

This question reminds me of a topic discussed by Mayor Nutter’s new sustainability coordinator, Mark Alan Hughes, in a Daily News column back in 2007. Hughes wrote: “THE BIG THEME of 2007 is this: We need a mayor who can manage the tensions between old and new Philadelphians. … [A] mayor who sees the potential bonds between new and old Philadelphians, who sees the ways in which each is necessary to the other's prosperity, is a mayor prepared to lead Philadelphia out of the dead-end Street and toward a better place.”

The existence of an old and new Philadelphia is clear: culturally, socially, and most glaringly, geographically. One of the speakers Wednesday night mentioned Francisville, and I heard a whisper from the young crowd, “where is Francisville?” I heard similar responses when I used to tell people I worked in Parkside. I recently got a blank stare from another young, hip Philadelphian when I mentioned Bartram’s Garden.

The fact is that the new Philadelphia is bringing many exciting and important elements to our city, rebuilding its population and reviving ailing neighborhoods. However the new Philadelphia is creating sort of a bubble within Philadelphia that overlaps with some elements of the old, while staying relatively separated from the massive rest of the world which is Philadelphia.

In New York, Chicago, Boston and other major cities, residents in one area seem to at least be aware of the expanse of neighborhoods and opportunities that exist throughout the rest of the city. Why is Philadelphia different in this regard? How can we bring a new level of awareness (if not understanding) between Fishtown transplants and Fishtown natives; families in Center City and families in El Centro del Oro; Passyunk Avenue and Germantown Avenue; Manayunk and Mantua; Parkwood and Parkside; East Falls and Eastwick?

Sitting in the audience Wednesday night, taking in the discussion, it struck me that perhaps arts and culture is the perfect venue for starting to bridge this gap. In other cities, arts initiatives have had a powerful impact in connecting neighborhoods and bringing to the surface the secret stories of a city’s people and communities. Certainly there are some similar initiatives that have been attempted in Philadelphia, but nothing in a venue and scale that has really captured the interest and attention of the old or the new Philadelphia in a significant way.

The fact is, the real arts and culture scene in Philadelphia spans the city’s 135 square miles, its dozens of communities, its range of ethnic and cultural identities. This is a powerful force that we should harness. What was certainly clear Wednesday night is that the conversation about arts and culture, and the new urban renaissance of Philadelphia needs to evolve and expand. It has to become citywide in scope, more advanced in its treatment of urban demographic shifts, and more dynamic in its approach.

The conversation that YIP started Wednesday night ended in time for Obama’s speech and the Phillies’ World Series win (!), but left more questions unanswered than answered. This is a dialogue that will need to continue with more players, more time, and much more creativity.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Equitable Gentrification



I was hoping the Inquirer would print my response (below) to an article published on October 15th about the Centennial District in West Philadelphia. However, it does not look like they are going to do so. The article I am responding to is here. Enjoy...

To the Editor:

In the Inquirer’s article about the Centennial District in West Philadelphia, Stephan Salisbury writes, “But while residents say they strongly support the district, there is concern that longtime and low-income residents might be squeezed out by gentrification” (“Envisioning a Centennial District in western Fairmount Park” 10/15/2008).

Having worked in Parkside, been a member of the Centennial District Steering Committee, and managed studies and grants that impact the Centennial District, I am very familiar with Parkside – its potential and problems. The potential is extremely exciting. However, the threat of displacement through gentrification is very real. Parkside is becoming a hot area, with plenty of real-estate speculators hedging their bets that this neighborhood will take off.

Parkside has a high vacancy rate and a relatively strong homeownership rate. There is room for plenty of new residents and businesses to move in, without displacement – that is, if existing homeowners, renters, and business owners can afford to stay. Although a number of stakeholders have vowed major displacement will not happen, I see no reason why the trend that has occurred in so many hot neighborhoods will not happen in Parkside.

However, we can buck the trend. The City – the Mayor’s Office, Commerce Department, and City Council – need to act now to adopt new policies that enable “equitable gentrification” – revitalization with minimal displacement of existing residents, allowing the people of the community to enjoy the fruits of their neighborhood’s renewal.

For years I have advocated for the City to adopt these kinds of policies, including increased thresholds for the senior tax freeze program; a property tax deferment program for low-income households; transition counseling for residents and business owners; affordable housing set asides (i.e., inclusionary zoning); incentives for mixed-income, senior, and rental housing development; and a greater nexus between existing programs and the homeowners and business owners who need them.

Without these City programs, targeted at enabling equitable gentrification, Parkside will improve and thrive, but the people who live there will not be able to afford to stay. If that occurs, the success of the Centennial District will be a hollow victory, indeed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

John Norquist in Philadelphia

John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee and President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, will be the recipient of the 2008 Award for Professional Excellence, bestowed by the Ed Bacon Foundation at its annual awards ceremony on Tuesday December 2nd in Philadelphia. Awards will also go to the student winners of the Foundation's annual urban design competition. More information on the event here.

The Candidates' Positions on Infrastructure Spending



This article on CNNMoney.com highlights the policies proposed by Senator Obama and Senator McCain to address the nation's infrastructure funding crisis.

The problem, of course is "it would take $1.6 trillion over five years to address the nation's infrastructure problems, according to a 2005 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the country's system a 'D.'"

In addition, "Fifty years ago, the federal government allocated 10% of its non-defense spending on infrastructure...Nowadays, the amount has shriveled to between 3.5% and 4%."

The solutions in a nutshell: "John McCain, the Republican nominee, advocates shifting financing from earmarks to high-priority projects, while Barack Obama, his Democratic challenger, would create a federally-funded bank to invest in improvement projects."

The article then assesses the opinions of "experts" on the two plans:

"Most applaud McCain for his desire to end earmarks, which they say divert money from critical projects. ...Otherwise, McCain has offered little insight into how much federal funding he'd set aside for infrastructure and what projects he'd support."

"Obama has consistently supported greater spending on infrastructure. They ["experts"] were also pleased he did not advocate suspending the federal gas tax. Most favor the creation of an infrastructure bank that can harness the financial power of the private sector, which is increasingly interested in leasing or investing in highways and airports."

However, the bottom line: "$60 billion over 10 years is a far cry from what's needed to address the nation's crumbling roads and bridges..."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Help Plan the Greater Philadelphia Region

My last post highlighted problems and opportunities in the way we grow as a region. Now be part of the solution...

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) will hold public workshops throughout the bi-state region to gather public input that will help shape the region’s long-range plan. Offering food, networking and an opportunity for individual voices to be heard, the workshops will examine the issues that we face today as well as those that will be with us in the coming years.

DVRPC’s Plan will provide guidance for land use decisions and determine the region’s transportation investments throughout the next 25 years. The Plan will also address issues such as combating sprawl, reinvestment in older cities and suburbs, alleviating traffic congestion, and will deal with environmental and economic issues likely to impact the Delaware Valley.

Workshops will be scheduled for all nine counties in the metropolitan Philadelphia area, the first to be announced include the following:

Philadelphia Workshop: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 21 5:30 P.M.
Loews Philadelphia Hotel, 1200 Market Street, Philadelphia

Gloucester County Workshop: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 29 5:30 P.M.
Office of Government Services Building, 1200 North Delsea Drive, Clayton, NJ

Camden County Workshop: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30 5:30 P.M.
Cherry Hill Public Library, 1100 Kings Highway North, Cherry Hill, NJ

Details for workshops in Burlington, Mercer, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties are coming soon.

For more information about DVRPC’s long-range plan and the Public Workshop announcement, please visit: http://www.dvrpc.org/connections/index.htm.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What If?


Image: DVRPC

Two posts ago I talked about the high cost of our auto-centric, sprawling development pattern in many parts of our nation. Many Americans see this cost at the gasoline pump, but what are the true costs for continuing to build farther away from where people work and shop, only accessible by car?

What are the costs in building new roads, new schools, new infrastructure? What are the costs to economic development, to commuting time, to the environment? These are the questions that a new study by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission seeks to answer.

The study, titled “Making the Land Use Connection: Regional What-If Scenario Analysis” is part of a series of documents analyzing the new long-range plan for the greater Philadelphia region in 2035. It is available in pdf format.

The study uses DVRPC’s modeling tools to simulate a number of factors in three scenarios.

“Trend” projects out the current growth patterns for the region.

“Recentralization” accounts for more growth in urban areas, towns, and older suburbs, bringing jobs and housing back into the region’s existing centers.

“Sprawl” shows an acceleration of growth, expanding farther into the region’s outlying areas than anticipated in the Trend scenario.

Clearly, with such a complicated range of factors, these models are not perfect. However, they use the same methodology for all three scenarios, bringing a consistent and controlled analysis of the costs and benefits of how we grow as a region.

The study describes the methodology and explains, “The main differentiation between the scenarios is the location of future population and employment by planning area. All other assumptions between the scenarios are identical.”

Here are some highlights from the study’s findings:

• The Recentralization scenario saves 163,000 acres from development compared to the Trend scenario. This is an area roughly the size of Camden County.

• Under the Sprawl scenario, an additional 309,000 acres will be developed in the region compared to the Trend scenario. This is an area roughly the size of Montgomery County.

• The Recentralization scenario saves 71,800 acres from agricultural development compared to the Trend scenario, and an additional 167,500 agricultural acres compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario could reduce annual VMT [vehicle miles traveled] in 2035 by 1.7 billion compared to the Trend scenario, and by 3 billion compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• Compared to the Trend scenario, the Recentralization scenario could save 1.25 working days of time spent driving in 2035 per capita.

• In 2035, the Recentralization scenario could produce person hours of delay due to congestion by 24 million hours region-wide, or four hours per capita, compared to the Trend scenario.

• Less driving in the Recentralization scenario translates into an average of 4,299 fewer vehicle crashes in 2035 compared to the Sprawl scenario and 2,200 fewer crashes than in the Trend scenario.

• The average household in the Recentralization scenario will require 2.3 percent less energy to power, heat, cool, and transport than an average household under the trend scenario.

• Under the Recentralization scenario, the sum of CO2 emissions from residential and vehicle energy use can be decreased by nearly 3.7 million tons in 2035…compared to the Trend scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario is estimated to save 24 million gallons of water per day in the region…

• The Trend scenario anticipates increasing jobs in disadvantaged…communities by approximately three percent over the 30-year period.

Now let’s talk money. What are the costs/savings of all this?

• Excess time and fuel wasted in congestion in the Sprawl scenario could cost the region an extra $909 million, or $148 per capita, more than the Trend scenario in 2035; and $1.57 billion, or $255 per capita…compared to the Recentralization scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario is estimated to save the average household $300 in annual auto and utility expenses compared to the Trend scenario and nearly $1,300 compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• Total supporting infrastructure cost for schools, local roads, sewers and water is $25 billion more under the Sprawl scenario than under the Trend scenario. … By more fully utilizing existing infrastructure, the Recentralization scenario could save nearly $3 billion total dollars…

This last figure shows the true burden of sprawl on our society. The costs of supportive infrastructure in the Trend scenario are $10.8 billion, in the Recentralization scenario $7.38 billion, and in the Sprawl scenario $35.6 billion. It matters how we grow our region and nation. The study explains this fact more fully:

“As population grows in previously undeveloped areas, new infrastructure and increased revenue from real estate taxes generate healthy fiscal conditions. Population growth, though, brings the need for additional services, and as infrastructure ages, it becomes expensive to maintain and replace, straining municipal budgets. As a result, over time, taxes need to be raised, fees increased, services reduced, or additional debt incurred. Tax increases and service cuts eventually lead to lower property values and/or outmigration, and the municipality begins losing its tax base and risks falling into distress.”

If we as a nation wish to continue to expand farther and farther away from our developed areas, our transportation infrastructure, our jobs and services, then there is a real cost to our society. As the DVRPC report shows, it is potentially a cost we cannot afford.

However, if we make a committed decision, as a nation, to change the way we grow, travel, and live, if we reinvest in urbanized areas and their supportive infrastructure, then the cost savings to our society and our environment, will be profound.