Thursday, September 24, 2009
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.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Camden, NJ's recent urban reinvestments
The Philadelphia Daily News ran an article last week about the changing tides of Chester, the long-beleaguered Pennsylvania city near the Delaware border. The article noted Chester’s former industrial golden age, its recent reputation for drugs and crime, and a number of recent investments in the city that give hope for Chester’s future. These investments include the new Harrah’s casino, the soon-to-be-built Major League Soccer stadium, the University Crossing project (including a hotel, apartments, and a bank), a new recreation center, and the city’s planned river walk.
The article argues that in the midst of a recession, all of this construction is not just welcome, but highly encouraging for “Pennsylvania’s dark horse city.” Of course that progress is relative considering the above-mentioned bank will be the city’s first in 15 years, and Chester still lacks a supermarket. Much of the new construction is and will be highly subsidized by taxpayers. The question: Is Chester truly turning around or is this just the latest futile attempt to shock life back into an abandoned and dying city?
As I was reading the article I felt pangs of déjà vu. The language of the article and the types of investments seemed remarkably similar to another struggling small city near Philadelphia – Camden, NJ. Certainly Camden and Chester are very different cities, but they also have many things in common:
- They are both small cities (Camden is 8.8 square miles with 79,000 residents, while Chester is 4.8 square miles with 37,000 residents).
- They are both waterfront cities along the Delaware River.
- Both are home to a university (Rutgers Camden and Widener University).
- They were both old industrial cities that sunk so low that they were taken over by the state.
- In both cases highways speed travelers past their borders, giving just a glimpse of the city’s face.
- In both cities local police have been recently lobbying to remove residency requirements for the force.
And now they share the commonality that state and local officials are favoring the same general strategy for their revitalization. Camden built a baseball stadium, aquarium, and a major outdoor music venue, lined with a river walk – much of it built with major public subsidy. Nearby some private developers built a modest amount of new housing and retail. All of it was surrounded by a sea of parking lots so that out-of-towners could easily find a space and would not have to see the real Camden.
Today in Camden, the riverfront is bustling with activity (when there is a game or concert), but there are few promenaders on the river walk, and almost none of the visitors venture into the city. The downtown streets, just blocks away, are as depressed as ever, separated from the development by a moat of parking lots. Last I checked, Habitat for Humanity was still Camden’s biggest housing developer.
Chester’s reinvestment seems suspiciously similar. In place of the aquarium and music venue is a casino. In place of the baseball stadium is a soccer stadium. Granted, the casino and MLS stadium are going to attract more dollars from patrons than their counterparts in Camden; however, the basic equation is the same: stand-alone projects, plenty of parking, no connection to the heart of the city.
In a city like Camden or Chester that seems to be bleeding to death, some may argue that there is little room for pushing the envelope on urban reinvestment. To many it probably seems that any means justifies the end of attracting outside visitors and their economic development dollars. However, I would argue that this investment strategy of attracting visitors to auto-centric destinations, cut off from the city, is a shortsighted approach that will end up bringing in some revenue, but very little in the way of true urban revitalization.
With all of the money thrown in by the public sector and local charities in Camden, the city has seen too little improvement outside of the tourist-laden waterfront. I fear Chester’s foray into the spotlight will similarly stall in a few years unless the city takes a different track. Some could blame Camden’s unimpressive comeback on the current housing market. However, that is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. The main reason that Camden is not doing better is because the new developments did not follow the basic equation for reviving a city and its neighborhoods.
Presumably the ultimate goal is to restore the city and its neighborhoods so that Chester is no longer reliant on major state support. If this is the case, then projects that attract tourists to come for the day and leave will not cut it. Investments need to be targeted at restoring neighborhoods and supporting local business. This is a much tougher equation than building a stadium on vacant land, but it is necessary.
Rather than building stand-alone projects surrounded by parking, Chester should build linkages to connect these new projects to existing commercial streets. Stadiums in cities like Pittsburgh and Denver abut neighborhoods with new businesses serving as gateways, rather than parking lots. Even if there are few businesses now, these physical connections will allow entrepreneurs the chance to capitalize on the new projects, allowing the revitalization to eventually spread.
On-site parking must be consolidated and reduced as much as possible. If tourists can walk from their car right into the stadium or casino then there is absolutely no hope for spillover economic development. We cannot plan for how the city looks now – rather how it can look years down the line. Physical connectivity between the investments of today and the thriving neighborhoods and corridors of tomorrow is key.
Community investments can start in areas around assets like Widener University or the new waterfront developments, and work their way inward. These investments should focus on building new economic opportunities while restoring the physical plant of neighborhoods so that they can ultimately attract outside development and individual homeowners. Public investments must be made in ways that trigger a larger private reaction.
From the public side, investments can include elements like special services districts to clean and green; targeted, high-visibility projects like neighborhood parks; grants or low-interest loans for business owners; incentives for developers and for individual homeowners. To make an impact, all of these investments must be focused on a shared geographical area, rather than spread out across the city. That geographical area cannot be a tourist-only zone, rather neighborhoods targeted for revitalization.
Chester has two SEPTA rails stops and a transportation center. The City should utilize these assets to build new commercial corridors through transit-oriented development. Patrons will be arriving to the soccer stadium by train as well as by car. Their journey from the train station to the stadium should be lined with shops and restaurants. Once this corridor starts to transform, it is a key location for new housing near the station. The City is currently working with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and SEPTA to look at the possibilities in this regard.
As the state and city invest, it is critical that local residents guide the revitalization, and do not feel like their elected officials are trying to attract newcomers to push them out. The public sector should empower and work with local community groups to plan for their communities and to implement these plans. Programs should be put in place to protect existing homeowners and make them feel comfortable that they will be able to enjoy their neighborhood’s future. The public sector should invest in programs to build entrepreneurship, and provide residents with access to capital and resources to benefit through new business opportunities.
Investing in planning and development is not enough. Public safety, education, and recreation are critical pieces of the urban revitalization puzzle. Major investments in these areas can payoff only if the other investments are coming as well. The idea is that over time crime will reduce and the schools will improve as the city’s neighborhoods rebound. Again, it is important to invest in these areas focused geographically. A comprehensive set of investments in a shared physical area has the best chance for making meaningful impact.
This complex mix of strategies and programs is certainly more difficult to implement than a few new single developments on the riverfront. Their impact takes much longer to be realized. However, if Chester does not want to share Camden’s fate of a half-baked revitalization that barely touches the city’s residents, then it should do things differently. Both of these cities have tremendous assets and potential to tap into a new national interest in downtown living. It’s up to Chester’s leadership to get it right. Urban reinvestment is expensive, and second chances can be decades in between.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Since Ariel brought up the topic of schools, I would like to expand on this discussion. There are few policy areas that influence each other as profoundly as education and community development. Yet, rarely do policy makers in these areas really sit down together to craft comprehensive solutions. Too often community development folks ignore schools as islands in our neighborhoods, and too often education folks only focus within the school walls.
A recent report by the Urban Institute looked promising in this regard. Its title is “Vibrant Neighborhoods, Successful Schools: What the Federal Government Can Do to Foster Both.” Unfortunately, the content of the paper hardly addresses the promise of the cover. The basis of the paper is the concept that “low-income children do better when they attend schools with middle- and upper-income children than when they attend schools where most of their classmates are poor.”
Thus the paper is predominantly dedicated to strategies for economic integration. Much of the paper discusses strategies for building affordable housing in wealthier areas, and for transporting poor children to better performing school districts. While improving the opportunities for some lucky students, neither of these approaches fixes the underlying problems of high-poverty neighborhoods with underperforming schools.
One short section deals with strategies for attracting families with means to impoverished areas with underperforming schools. This is the only piece of the paper that actually addresses strategies for re-investing in disadvantaged areas – thereby rebuilding neighborhood vitality. However, the paper never addresses the negative impacts of gentrification or other elements outside of housing, and after citing examples of this phenomenon by Georgia Tech, the University of Pennsylvania, Atlanta, and St. Louis, the paper concludes, “there is no single strategy for success.”
In all, the greatest failing of this paper is that it confuses vibrant neighborhoods with affluent neighborhoods. Additionally, it seems to imply that housing is the sole factor in determining neighborhood quality. There is no discussion of the many other factors that contribute to neighborhood vitality, like jobs and economic development, cleanliness and safety, recreation and open space, arts and culture, diversity and quality of retail, access to goods and services, the strength of local institutions, or transportation.
Needless to say, focusing only on building income diversity through housing policies is a short-sighted approach. Certainly, income diversity is important, but there are many other equally, if not more, critical neighborhood-based goals for impacting successful schools. Neighborhoods present the support structures that students experience daily. Tight-knit, livable and nurturing neighborhoods create an environment that is necessary for learning.
In some communities where I have worked, I have seen students go to school daily in neighborhoods littered with trash, with abandoned storefronts, and dilapidated homes. It is challenging to expect students to learn in a place where they see little hope in their own community for advancement and fulfillment. As such, many of the brightest students aspire to leave their old community behind – if they are lucky enough to be able to get out. The problem is, each child who makes it out of the community and never returns is one fewer parent of the future who could help transform the community into a vibrant and supportive environment for the next generation.
As the Urban Institute paper reminds us, “it is possible to provide quality education even when many students are poor and the surrounding neighborhood is distressed.” This has been one of the main arguments of the education policy folks, focusing on teacher performance, school administration, learning models, and merit pay. In many ways this argument is correct. However, with a strategy that uplifts communities while investing in schools, the struggle would be much easier, and the progress much accelerated.
The struggle to improve schools will be much aided by a focus on investing time and resources both inside and outside the school walls. However, communities will also be aided by investing in our schools. This issue is truly a two-way street. Just as vibrant communities are important for building strong schools, strong schools are also critical for creating vibrant communities. Neighborhoods serve as assets that attract homebuyers (as Ariel discussed in his last post, and as the Urban Institute article notes). However, more importantly, schools can provide the basis for building stronger communities.
Teachers are some of our most important community role models. School programs and after-school activities are critical community assets. School buildings can and should serve as physical centers for their surrounding neighborhoods. By reconnecting our school buildings and programs to communities we can provide greater opportunities for students, parents, and for neighborhood growth. Schools can become centers of community learning, not just student learning. At the same time, vibrant communities can offer the supportive environment, resources, contacts, life skills, internships and service opportunities that students will need.
We need a new paradigm where urban neighborhoods and schools are seen as a single unit – where they succeed or fail together. We need innovative federal, state, and local programs to invest in communities and schools at the same time – not just in terms of housing. This new paradigm should view the school not as an island, but as a critical part of the community life, with programs and opportunities flowing both ways between school and community. At its core, this is an issue of education folks and community development folks sitting down together and realizing that ultimately they need each other to succeed.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
A community (real estate) development professional in Philadelphia notes, that the steadiest indicator of whether a family will move out of her stable and popular neighborhood, is the year their child must enter fifth grade.
In the 1990's the (in)famous School District Superintendent David Hornbeck tried to get the Philadelphia School district to shut down the city's magnet schools: he thought the schools segregated the brightest children from the peers which meant that students in neglected schools never had bright peers to learn from and with. He was unable to do this because it is popularly believed that doing so would have driven the last of the middle-class out of the city. I myself went to a magnet school and I am not sure what my parents would have done, not being able to afford a private school, had they not had one (Masterman) to send me to, other than move out of the city. The link between housing values and school districts is one that is well established in the literature. Of course you probably know that, if you yourself (or your parents)have not moved into a suburban school district because of the better schools, you know plenty of people who have.
While it is well known that we are willing to "vote with our feet" and buy more expensive houses and pay more expensive taxes to make sure our kids have access to better schools, a new report published by the Wharton School suggests that we are underfunding our schools, not only in terms of what it takes to make sure they have adequate funding, but in terms of what we are actually willing to pay for them.
The study examined the general obligation bonds that California voters agreed to float to finance school facility investment. These bonds meant that tax payers were required to pay higher real estate taxes in order to build more and better schools. As the authors note
"We find that passage of a bond measure causes house prices in the district to rise by about six percent. This effect appears gradually over the two or three years following the election and persists for at least a decade. Our preferred estimates indicate that marginal homebuyers are willing to pay, via higher purchase prices and expected future property taxes, $1.50 or more for an additional dollar of school facility spending, and even our most conservative estimates indicate a willingness to pay of $1.13."
This investment in schools is critical. Nearly 100,000 of our public schools are in need of renovation, expansion and repair. As the study notes "A third of public schools rely on portable or temporary classrooms and a quarter report that environmental factors, such as air conditioning and lighting, are “moderate” or “major” obstacles to instruction." One can only imagine what the statistics are for large urban school districts such as Philadelphia. According to the historian George Thomas, quite a few of Philadelphia's schools, designed during the 1920's were built by architects known more for designing prisons than schools.
However, as education policy analyst Claire Robertson-Kraft, editor of A Grand Bargain for Education Reform notes, the educational increases measured in the study "are pretty marginal compared to other academic interventions, like teacher quality." Which naturally leads to the question, could the Alhambra Unified School District spend the $85,000,000 in its bond issue on teachers instead. However not only does that amount to only $1,000 per student, but there are significant legal and policy constraints on spending bond revenues on operations.
What this points to is a mismatch in how we fund our education, Californians (and by extension probably most of us) are willing to pay more, and we have to finally fess up and start paying more for our education. It certainly pays us back, not only in housing values, but in our own future.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
The Ed Bacon Foundation and The Philadelphia Center for Architecture announce...
THE 4TH ANNUAL ED BACON STUDENT COMPETITION
"Brown to Green"
A design competition open to college and university level students in North America.
Pre-Registration Form due September 30, 2009.
Entries due Friday, October 30, 2009.
"Brown to Green" challenges students across North America to create a new vision for South Philadelphia's Grays Ferry Crescent. With the industrial DuPont Marshall Laboratory complex closing down and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation extending its riverfront park trail along the edge of the site, this area offers strong potential, but also great challenges. The competition gives students the opportunity to push the envelope on cutting-edge ideas for transforming brownfields of an industrial past into sustainable environs for a green future.
More info here
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The following is an unabridged version of an article that is scheduled to appear in Context Magazine, the AIA Philadelphia's journal of record.
While Philadelphians await the arrival of the Barnes Museum, they have been eagerly attending the Academy of Natural Sciences Urban Sustainability Forums. Though they have been mourning the loss of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s (PMA) free Sundays, they have also embraced its new Perelman Building and its more than 150,000 square feet of exhibition space that display costumes, textiles, prints, drawings, and photographs collection and are waiting for the expanded new underground galleries designed by Frank Gehry. As advocates push for a skate board park along the Schuylkill River Park and Philadelphians continuing to flock to the annual Welcome America festival it is worth reconsidering the role of the Parkway in Philadelphia’s life. And as Philadelphians its worth asking if this ever evolving public works project is worth the money we continually pour into it generation after generation. Will the vision of the Parkway as a grand boulevard first imagined in the mid 19th century and itself conceived as a work of art ever be complete?
The first proposal to create a parkway was floated in 1858, when what was wanted was a connector between the center of the city and the soon to be created Fairmount Park. The idea, however, did not gain momentum until the 1890’s and the beginning of the City Beautiful movement. Inspired by the sense of grandeur, order and civilization they saw in the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, civic boosters across the United States advocated large scale transformation of their cities that included the creation of boulevards, the erection of grand libraries, and the making of impressive civic spaces.
The City Beautiful movement was founded on aesthetics but filled with moral and capitalist ideas. Industrial and corporate leaders claimed that beauty was an investment in middle class values and culture, and that it also was good for business. Finally in 1907 construction began on the Parkway, designed by Jacques Greber and Paul Cret, and was capped in 1924, by the instillation of the still popular Swann Fountain. The making of the Parkway required the destruction of an entire industrial neighborhood, its factories, and homes replaced by museums, parks, and boulevards. But mourning the loss of that old urban fabric only gets you so far, after all Philadelphia is no longer the workshop of the world. However one of Philadelphia’s biggest businesses is tourism and the Parkway, whose institutions draw upwards of 3 million visitors a year and contribute more than $385 million dollar a year to the city economy. And it is still the heart of thriving neighborhoods, Logan Square, Spring Garden, and Fairmount. The last census counted 6,922 living in the row houses to the south and north of the Parkway, interspersed among the apartments and condos that flank it; and that was before the neighborhood experienced significant growth starting in 2003.
Yet users of the Parkway are in conflict. On an average day the Parkway sees nearly 5,000 average cars per lane, and Eakins Oval in front of the Art Museum sees almost twice that. At 21st street, one has to walk over 250 feet to cross from one side of the Parkway to another. However, making the area more walkable is not
simply a matter of changing road width, it’s a matter of making the area more interesting to walk through. Andy Toy of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association thinks that the area “need[s] more density” and that with “more people moving into our neighborhood” retail opportunities, activities and foot traffic will grow.
Since its inception, the Parkway has been the focus numerous studies, projects, and interventions, many aimed to bring more pedestrians to in an attempt to make it look more like the famous Champs Elysees, its Parisian model. This “dream” of the parkway as some sort of arena for the display and inculcation of culture lives on. This Parkway ideal, with people strolling up and down its sidewalks, visiting the museums and other institutions, is limited by the design of the Parkway itself and by Philadelphians’ habits relating to where and how often they choose to expose themselves to the arts.
Since the mid 1990’s planners have been trying to tame the Parkway, conquer its notorious traffic volumes and make it easier to walk along. In 1999 the CCD produced a plan that would have consolidated traffic lanes and create a raised plaza between Eakins Oval and the Art Museum. Though that plan never saw fruition, other work spear headed by the CCD has transformed the Parkway. The CCD built the new Cret Café on 16th Street and is planning a “discovery garden,” community center and café in front of the Cathedral. For over nine years, the CCD has also managed the Phlash, a short shuttle loop bringing tourists to institutions’ front doors. Its recent expansion to the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount and Franklin Square has extended its reach bringing Philadelphians and tourists all the way from Old City directly to the Parkway and beyond.
In 2004 new crosswalks were placed along the Parkway’s diagonal, making it easier to reach the restored Swann Fountain in Logan Square, and two years ago the CCD installed significant informational signage and just last summer, a consortium of foundations and non-profits such as the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society joined the state and the city in announcing $19 million to enhance lighting and green space along the Parkway.
Getting people into the museums themselves and “exposing them to culture” takes much more than simply building new buildings or galleries or sidewalks leading to them. It means making the art itself far more accessible to modern audiences. This July’s suspension of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “pay what you will” Sundays (due to fiscal constraints), is an unfortunate step in the wrong direction, but initiatives at a variety of institutions might pick up the slack. The Moore College of Art has seen as 264% increase in gallery visits in the past two years (it doesn’t hurt that they are free) with such innovative exhibits as Bicycle: people +
ideas in motion on display now. Additionally, the Fairmount Park Art Association will be debuting the Museum Without Walls, a project that the FPAA’s executive Director Penny Bach describes as making “Information about the sculptures along the Parkway… accessible by cell phone, and the stories behind the sculptures will be told by people with direct connections to the sculptures.” Such a project is critical for helping people have a better understanding of the over 35 statues already lining the Parkway, without the need of a sheltering museum.
However as Dr. Happy Fernandez, former city councilwoman and current president of the Moore College of Art notes, to truly connect Philadelphians to the art along the parkway “you need to build the audience,” and that requires significant outreach to schools and community groups, not only by the institutions themselves but through arts education in our schools. It does not necessarily matter how many works of art are now more readily accessible if there is not a market and appreciation for the art in Philadelphia in this and the next generation.
Bach notes that the FPAA was founded in 1872 by people who were spurred by the thought that “art could be an antidote [for] industrialization.” The Parkway, built by people who felt similarly and who thought that architecture and grand urban vistas could do the like, remains a grand turn of the century monument to the City Beautiful movement. Built to express a specific sense of grandeur, it easily turned into an auto-dominated concourse that injects people straight from the Northwest straight into Center City. However, it is also the site for huge public gatherings, from Live8 to the 4th of July celebrations. The Parkway is built for capacity, be it for museums or festivals, and its actually something uniquely suited for the 21st century and the new over-riding imperative of “economic development.” In the 19th Century cities were racing to create grand, sweeping vistas; in the 21st century they are racing to capture tourist dollars.
But is it worth it, and will it ever be “finished? Yes and no, respectively. Judi Rogers, the Executive Director of the Parkway Council Foundation argues that “The Parkway is the iconic vista that many people think of when they think of Philadelphia.” Having the Rocky steps and Swann fountain indelibly imprinted on both Philadelphians and our visitors’ minds is no small thing: such symbols have civic and economic value for our collective imagination and wallets.
This is not to say that this continuation of a 19th century ideal is not problematic. Some of the Parkways most visible visitors, its homeless, are an affront to our idealized notion of what the Parkway should be and a threat to its marketability. However they are also a reminder that the Parkway not only belongs to all Philadelphians, but that our efforts to improve the lives of all Philadelphians extends beyond simple landscaping.
The problems that bedevil the Parkway are likely to stay, and our attempts to correct or mitigate them are as much part of the character of the Parkway as the flags that line it are.