By Matt Blanchard
Three of the five Democratic candidates for mayor weighed in on a proposal to bury and build over Interstate 95 on Monday night, but two of them said such projects were simply not a priority.
Both U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah and State Rep. Dwight Evans endorsed the idea, generated during a recent PennPraxis public design workshop, but rated it well behind issues like policing and poverty.
Only Former City Councilman Michael Nutter offered strong support for the idea.
“I absolutely support the idea,” Nutter said. “It’s one of the best things to come out of the [Praxis] process.”
Nutter argued that, just as the city recently decided to build two new sports stadiums, it is capable of taking on ambitious, long term projects.
“That’s what leaders do,” he said. “They make long term plans, for which you won’t immediately see the benefits – or the credit.” He went on to quote famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham:
“Let us make no little plans,” Nutter said. “This is worth making an investment in.”
The three squared off during a candidates forum sponsored by the Design Advocacy Group, the American Institute of Architects as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer and others. The candidates tackled subjects like casinos, bureaucratic reform, billboard, transit and affordable housing, agreeing on much.
Audience members at the Philadelphia Free Library were invited to pose questions. Following the candidates’ appearances, there was a panel discussion among the sponsoring organizations with audience participation.
“The goal was to hear what the candidates had to say about the status of planning, design and zoning in Philadelphia, and how those matters affect the effort to build a city that is both beautiful and functional,” said Inquirer editorial page editor Chris Satullo, who moderated the event. “I think it’s fair to say that the sponsoring groups all feel that there’s a lot of room for improvement in city government’s level of attention to sound principles of planning, zoning and design.”
The PennPraxis prototype for I-95 is complex, but basically extends the sunken portion of the highway near Center City, sinking also the ramps to I-676, in order to allow the construction of new city buildings atop the highways and to reconnect the city to its river once again. A similar, but far larger project is underway in Boston, called the “Big Dig”.
At his turn to speak, Fattah acknowledged that the room, filled with architects and designers, was passionate about such plans, but said his priorities as mayor would lie elsewhere.
“My mind goes back to the 140,000 people in this city with no health insurance,” he said. “I heard the applause and the passion for I-95. That’s a huge project, with lots of zeros behind it. I’d like to see the same passion for helping our people bury some of their problems.”
Fattah’s people-before-buildings approach is consistent with his “Opportunity Agenda,” a plan to attack poverty he’s been campaigning on.
Dwight Evans, too, offered lukewarm support for the idea but characterized it as a low priority.
“I don’t think I’ve heard yet where the money’s going to come from. Unless we do something like the Big Dig in Boston. Unless we find some source of federal largesse.”
Evans said he “ranks his priorities in terms of police stations, rec centers – the basic infrastructure of the city.”
To this, Nutter offered a rebuttal. The federal government has all sorts of questionable priorities on which they spend taxpayer money each day, he said in a veiled reference to the Iraq War.
The city, he said, has room for both immediate needs and long term visions.
“Clearly we’ll need state and federal support,” Nutter said “But it is realistic to do this.”
For more information, visit www.designadvocacy.org.