Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Wrapup: Mayors Institute and American Recovery

Image Montage (sources linked here): Background image of Charleston (left) and Chicago's Millennium Park (right), Foreground from left to right are Mayor Riley of Charleston, the MICD logo, Mayor Nutter, and the front page of the New York Daily News (October 30, 1975).

Happy Friday! This has been a big week, with Congress finalizing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in D.C. and the Mayors’ Institute on City Design’s (MICD) national session going on in Philly.

Let’s talk about the latter topic first.

Mayor Nutter and mayors from five other cities are meeting in intensive workshops all day today, and half of the day tomorrow, to deal with design problems in their cities. In my op-ed in the Daily News two days ago, I praised Mayor Nutter for inviting MICD to Philly, and for taking the initiative to educate himself on city design issues.

I also mentioned in my op-ed the precedent for mayors going through this program, and then spearheading national-headline-making, city-changing projects (like Millennium Park in Chicago), focusing on improving their city’s urban landscape and national image. However, design does not have to be about big projects; a focus on design is a mindset that informs a broad range of a mayor’s decisions.

This point was clear in a keynote address made last night by Joe Riley, the charismatic former mayor of Charleston, SC, and one of the biggest advocates for the Mayors’ Institute program. Riley spent his career focusing on investing huge amounts of money and attention on the quality of his city’s public realm, and the results have been stunning.

Riley built parks downtown, filled in parking lots with new development, focused on putting people and excitement on the downtown streets, spent huge amounts of political and financial capital on rehabilitating historic homes, he put the stadium on the waterfront (despite strong political opposition regarding the land costs), and focused on issues like planting trees, and making sure that the sidewalk materials looked the way he envisioned.

The key is that Mayor Riley focused on the fundamentals of how to build great cities. He had to build a parking garage, but insisted that the architect make it not look like a parking garage, including ground-floor retail. In the new convention center, the developer wanted to connect the parking directly to the interior of the convention center; Mayor Riley said “no,” insisting on patrons having to walk outside, laying the foundation for a vibrant city street along the convention center’s edge, with shops and restaurants.

Along the way, Riley had to fight opposition founded in half a century of auto-centric, suburban-focused American mindset. He wanted ground-floor retail on one street, but his department heads opposed because they would have to narrow the street to add a sidewalk. Riley insisted on narrowing the street and valuing the pedestrian over the automobile. He fought several motel projects, making the point that if you want to build a context, a destination, a vibrant urban place, you need the right uses, the right design, and the right infrastructure.

One important area of Riley’s focus was affordable housing. He spent enormous public dollars preserving historic homes, scattered throughout the city, and reusing them as affordable housing. It is beautiful housing, in good locations that contributes to the urban fabric. Riley insisted that we should never again build public housing that group low-income people together in projects. Why? In his words, “Because it ignores every lesson in the western hemisphere.” The solution is scattering public housing throughout the city, integrating a unit here or there into existing neighborhoods. Sure, it’s much more expensive and harder to maintain. But to Mayor Riley, it’s the only option.

In reference to this point, I look at Philadelphia’s recent housing projects that are new, low-rise homes, but that still group the poor together in ghettoized projects. The Philadelphia Housing Authority is so proud of them, even though they embody a failed, outdated approach that depresses communities, and hurts our urban fabric.

Mayor Riley’s speech was deeply inspiring. I looked around and saw a number of people with tears in their eyes. The reason it was so inspiring was that we saw a public leader before us who was making decisions to improve the lives of the people in his city. He fought hard to make his city’s public realm nurturing, inspiring, vibrant, and beautiful.

Riley talked about the guys in the corner liquor store, with guns strapped to their belts, who stopped the Mayor to tell him how beautiful the new planted area along a local roadway was. He recalled seeing a suburban friend of his making a rare trip downtown. The Mayor asked his friend what in the world he was doing walking downtown. The friend told the Mayor he loved to walk downtown now, because it’s so beautiful again.

It is impossible to spend too much money and political will on building a beautiful city. The impacts are profound. A focus on city design shapes the city’s physical environment, economic development, safety, the quality of its neighborhoods, and its international image. But, the investment has to be done right. Our convention center in Philadelphia, currently underway, is an urban design disaster. It is going to kill several blocks right in the heart of the city with blank walls. You can spend a lot of money on design and still get it wrong, missing out on the positive impacts.

Mayor Nutter knows this. He’s going through his training today and tomorrow exactly because city design is a priority to him. It is clear that he is committed to Philadelphia’s urban planning and design. I, for one, look forward to seeing what he can do to rival the great work of Charleston, Chicago, and other cities that have benefited from this executive training course through the Mayors’ Institute.

* * * *

Ok, let’s shift gears and talk about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Senate cut out a lot of important elements from the bill, but it looks like some of them are back in. With the bill close to adoption, it seems clear that there is going to be a nice chunk of money available for areas like transportation projects, economic development, small business loans, job training, housing, etc.

One of the speakers at MICD’s kickoff forum recalled the famous New York Daily News cover in 1975, with the headline “[President] Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The point is, for decades, cities have had a tough time getting federal support. The American Recovery Act is not the most urban-friendly bill, but it is certainly going to provide important dollars that can be used for major urban investment. Urban America still has an uphill PR battle, but we’re on our way.

Mayor Nutter has been in D.C. lobbying for Philadelphia. This fair city, like every other city, has a project wish list. Inga Saffron wrote about Philadelphia’s stimulus wish list today, explaining that the Mayor’s team of Deputy Mayors Rina Cutler and Andy Altman, and Sustainability Coordinator Mark Alan Hughes put together a list of projects that will strengthen Philadelphia in the long run. The only problem is that they are not very sexy. Green infrastructure, water main replacement, weatherization… not exactly projects that can get the public jazzed or make national headlines.

Inga quoted me in the piece, stating, “At some point, Mayor Nutter is going to have to do something he's going to be remembered for.” Now, don’t get me wrong, Philadelphia’s wish list projects are very smart and very necessary. However, looking at other cities wish lists, they had these kinds of projects, plus one big, visionary project – usually a new light rail line. Sure, there will probably be future stimulus spending. Sure, the big project probably won’t get funded now. But now is the time to put the big vision on the table.

Why? Several reasons. First, projects like Millennium Park and the big dig in Boston took a long time to drum up the political backing, the funding, and the public support. It’s time to get started, if this administration wants to put its mark on a big, transformative project. I know, in the spirit of Jane Jacobs we should look at the human-scale, but big projects are still important, too. Especially recreation and transit projects have the ability to improve the city in a major way, strengthening quality of life, while making national headlines.

Pushing visionary projects gets public support. This goes back to my earlier post about the administration’s great accomplishments, and lack of sound PR to gain public support for its work. With a list of critical but unexciting projects, the public will feel like we’re letting the stimulus opportunity go down the drain. Throw an exciting project into the mix of the public dialogue!

Even if the big project is not a top priority, just having it on the list shows that the mayor is thinking big, pushing for an exciting project that we can all rally behind. It’s good for public perception. We need both pragmatism and excitement. This unprecedented stimulus bill has the potential to let city administrations get the good PR from pushing both ends. Currently in Philly, we’re only being pragmatic.

I don’t want to end on that sour note. Mayor Nutter has only been in office for just over a year. He’s going through the Mayors’ Institute as we speak. There is time to make big things happen for Philadelphia, to maximize our federal dollars, and build excitement amongst the public, while putting Philadelphia on the national stage. Uncertainty lies ahead, but now is the time to celebrate how far we’ve come, and the potential of our urban future.

How can you help celebrate? Reception. Tonight. Philadelphia Center for Architecture. 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Food, booze, mayors, merriment.

1 comment:

Dan Pohlig said...

Hey Greg,
Any thoughts on what that big project would be? I had a bunch of stuff written about what I thought it wouldn't be but for some reason that was lost when I tried to post. Anyway, I'm sure you've given it some thought. What do you think the exciting idea should be?