Friday, February 22, 2013

Big Ideas Are Possible

By Greg

Last night hundreds of people came out to honor the student winners of the 2013 Ed Bacon Student DesignCompetition. The event was inspiring, celebrating visionary ideas for the future of Philadelphia from some of the world’s best and brightest young designers. This year’s winning team hailed from Cornell, with runners up from University of Maryland, University of Nottingham, University of Tennesee-Knoxville, and National University of Singapore.

The event also featured a keynote address from Edmund N. Bacon Prize winner, Colorado Governor and former Denver Mayor, John Hickenlooper. I met Hickenlooper once before in 2009, and both times he was easy going, down-to-earth, and totally visionary, with a firm belief that realizing big ideas is possible. Far from a career politician, he was previously a geologist and a beer brewer (owner of Wynkoop Brewing Company). I’ll also mention he’s a Philadelphia-area native and he and I share an alma mater (Wesleyan University).

In Hickenlooper’s talk he described his work creating a more livable city in Denver, and promoting freedom (his word) by spearheading one of the nation’s largest mass transit projects in history—giving people a choice of how to move around the region. He made these big visionary ideas seem so obvious and achievable. Hearing Governor Hickenlooper last night took me back to my visit to Denver in 2009, and I want to relate an experience from that trip:

I traveled to Denver for a conference, arriving a few hours early. There was a baseball game that afternoon, and I decided a sunny day at the ballpark would be a good way to while away a few hours. I asked about the best way to travel to the stadium. “Walk,” replied the smiling woman behind the hotel desk.

I left the convention center and walked a few blocks until I arrived at the 16th Street Mall. What I saw stopped me in my tracks. It was a real pedestrian street, closed to car traffic, and amazingly vibrant. The street was packed with people eating at cafes, shopping, pushing strollers, watching street performers. A free shuttle cruised down the 1.25 miles of car-free zone for those who wanted a rest or a quick ride.

As a Philadelphian, this sight made me green with envy. Our fair city had its own pedestrian mall not too long ago. Twelve blocks of Chestnut Street were closed to automobile traffic in the mid-1970s. However, in the late 1990s cars were permitted again, Chestnut was in sad shape, and many blamed the pedestrian mall. However, others argue that Philly never did the pedestrian street the right way. Whatever the reason, it didn’t work in Philly, but it succeeds magically in Denver.

The 1.4 mile walk from the convention center to Coors Field took me through the LoDo district—a hip, downtown neighborhood with beautifully restored historic buildings housing destinations like the Wynkoop brew pub. Just beyond LoDo is Coors Field. The first thing that I noticed is that the stadium is located right downtown, surrounded by mixed-use buildings, and less than a half mile from the city’s main train station. The next thing I noticed is that it is not surrounded by parking lots. Many fans were clearly parking at downtown garages and walking to the stadium, maybe stopping at restaurants and attractions before or after the game.

Coors Field was built in 1995. In the late 1990s, Philadelphia was looking at potential locations for our new sports stadiums. It was thrilling to consider the possibility of a stadium at 30th Street Station, or at Broad and Spring Garden Streets. At the end of the day, Philly could not get it done. While the Linc and Citizen’s Bank Park are nice fields, they are isolated, far from downtown, surrounded by a sea of parking. They do nothing to help downtown businesses and attractions. There is no synergy, nowhere to walk to. As I watched the Rockies take on the Padres, I silently bemoaned another lost opportunity for my hometown.

At the conference, I learned about another Denver achievement that made me even more envious. It’s called Fast Tracks—a $6.5 billion, twelve-year investment to build a 119-mile transit system for Denver, including six new rail lines. It is being financed by an increase in the sales tax approved by voters in 2004. Fast Tracks required vision, leadership, and true regional cooperation. Meanwhile, back in Philly any project to create new transit lines seems to fall by the wayside, while SEPTA recently announced a $4.7 billion shortfall.

This takes me back to the present, sitting there, listening to Governor Hickenlooper’s speech last night, and thinking about the future of my own city. Philadelphia is at a turning point. Our city is finally gaining population, has a thriving downtown, and is well positioned for greatness. But we need bold, visionary, gutsy leadership to get there. Seems to me Philly’s current leaders should be turning to this hometown boy for a few pointers.

Of course, all is not rosy in Denver; the city has fiscal issues, and higher poverty and unemployment rates than the national average. There are also significant differences. Philadelphia is a much larger city, in the center of a larger metro region. Still, for whatever reason, Denver has succeeded in some big, bold, visionary initiatives, where similar efforts in Philly fell flat (did I mention Denver has had bike sharing since 2009?).

I hope that the next wave of Philly leaders take a cue from Governor Hickenlooper and truly believe that big, visionary ideas are necessary and achievable. That we can stop saying “no,” and start saying “yes.” Yes, we can foster regional cooperation and help SEPTA become a great transit system. Yes, our next major stadium will be downtown. Yes, we can invest in pedestrian-only streets. Yes, we can have bike sharing. Yes, we can have a great, livable city that attracts residents and businesses and becomes famous not for one specific initiative, but for being a place where our leaders and citizens feel confident that big ideas are truly possible.


scandinasian said...

I am a Denverite who stumbled upon this entry. Thank you for the kind words about Denver! Come back and visit if you get the chance-- by 2014, the huge Union Station redevelopment portion of FasTracks should be completed, along with the projects in this crazy downtown residential boom we're experiencing. It's an exciting time to live in Denver!

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