Thursday, September 24, 2009

Internal and Political Development Set the Stage for Waterfront Development

By Ariel

In his latest post Greg briefly notes that both Camden and Chester are cities on former industrial waterfronts. Greg is correct in his prioritization of investments needed to ensure that Chester’s Stadium and Casino actually act as agents of revitalization, however (by nature of his focus) he glosses over an important feature of urban redevelopment, the agencies doing the redevelopment. These public authorities have their own internal dynamics, that combined with the unique circumstances of every city provide a distinct local flavor to urban redevelopment.
On Monday September 21st, Peter Hendee Brown spoke at a lecture arranged by the Penn Institute for Urban Redevelopment about his new book titled America’s Waterfront.

The lecture provided an excellent analysis of the changing nature of Port Authorities and how their response to transportation trends and changing municipal landscapes has changed waterfront development for cities from San Francisco to Tampa.
Brown notes that the development of the shipping container (those large metal boxes that now float stack atop boats many times the size of football fields) spelled the end of the traditional dock: no longer were scores of laborers need to unload boats, cranes could just lift them onto trucks. Oakland invested heavily in these cranes, while San Francisco did not. It was that decision, and the resulting dilapidation which lead to the redevelopment of the waterfront into the retail district it is today: the development potential of many such waterfronts is related to the failure of those ports to keep up with the times, eventually letting their land go “fallow.” Other places, such as Tampa and Miami became the home of cruise lines. There both the shipping boat owners and the ports, realized the need to change with the times: the boat operators changing their ships to cruise lines while the Port Authorities invested in destination redevelopment to make their ports more attractive to the tourists getting on and off the boats. As federal and naval bases closed and opened even more land became available for redevelopment and San Diego built their convention center along the waterfront. These changes required a serious change in the Port Authorities’ staff, they suddenly had to become savvy developers, not just transportation operations officers.

Philadelphia’s waterfront has faced a few key obstacles, detailed by Brown, that inform the current state of unrealized potential. And no its not simply the fact that is cut off by I-95. For one, while the Delaware River Port Authority has been around for years, funded and built bridges spanning the Delaware between PA and NJ, it has never had joint control of the two ports. It wasn’t simply the railroads which blocked the periodic attempts to unite the port, the separate ports themselves did so. The latest attempt to “bridge” the ports was in 1992, and while that was defeated, one small sentence gave the DRPA was given the ability to fund economic development.

By the time they finally got around to it (it being economic development) the presence and the design of the impacts severely limited what could be done on the Philadelphia side of the river. 676 ventures further into New Jersey, leaving over ten blocks between the highway and the river, while Philadelphia is lucky to have two between I-95 and the waterfront. (676 was also built long after I-95 and by the time it was built the DOT required the highway to be connected to the bridge where it touched down on the shore, in Philadelphia people exit the Ben Franklin Bridge around fifth street). All of which is to say, by the time there was a mechanism to develop the waterfront, in Philadelphia there was little waterfront controlled by the DRPA (or by organizations particularly friendly to the DRPA) for its economic development money to go towards. It’s one of the reasons that the DRPA funded Chester’s stadium, there was simply little land, and even less vision, as to what to do on the waterfront.

If anything, this story reiterates the importance of the Praxis Plan / Civic Vision. The Philadelphia waterfront is divided among numerous (far too numerous) entities, few of whom under the leadership of a single entity. The Plan / Civic Vision provides a coherent goal around which partners gather (sometimes, whether they want to or not). In the absence of the institutional building blocks for waterfront development, civic visions have ever more importance.

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