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.

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* 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!