Q&A: Planning, politics and power in Philadelphia

Three planners share their views in the inaugural issue of AIA Philadelphia’s CONTEXT journal.

Richard Bartholomew advocates the Planning Commission must be re-established. Barbara Kaplan says the players should play by the rules. Scott Page wants to see the neighborhoods compete.

Members of the Context editorial board—David Brownlee, Sally Harrison and Harris Steinberg—join the conversation.

BROWNLEE What does good planning look like? What are the mechanisms that give us good planning?
KAPLAN Planning is really a practice of problem solving. It’s kind of saying, where are we now, where do we want to be, and what are the steps to get from here to there. It’s a fairly simple activity. Everyone wants to create a big mystique about it and I think that’s a mistake.
BARTHOLOMEW There are certain clients that are getting to hire big name architects and designers to do visions for them and plans for them to make a splash. So a lot of the stuff you see that comes out of that kind of perception of planning is going to look very flashy. There are many of us engaged in the planning practice who believe that
good planning is much more than that. It should look good—cutting edge perhaps—it also needs to be grounded.
STEINBERG How do you get implementation?
KAPLAN We have a very unique structure at the Planning Commission and I have not heard it anywhere else in the country. We have the managing director, the finance director and the commerce director sitting on the commission. That’s a very critical thing because it directly ties planning into implementation. And when they want to do it, it can really work. The commission is actually very well positioned, better than most, to link planning and implementation. But I think the one thing I would change is to not have them serve at the pleasure of the mayor but to have them serve staggered terms so you don’t have a potentially new commission every time a new mayor is elected.
BARTHOLOMEW This has always been cited as one of the key factors in the development of the Baltimore waterfront, that they didn’t have term limits and Don Schaffer was the mayor for a long time. And it took over 20 years to do it.
KAPLAN The bottom line is you have to have the political will. In Philadelphia, in the public realm at least, it starts at the top—it starts with the mayor. We now have the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board, Department of Licenses and Inspection, Historical Commission, and a Commerce Department where you really have to carefully coordinate all of the policies and actions of those agencies in the furtherance
of specific public policy goals and the carrying out of plans.
And if that doesn’t happen, it’s left to the private sector to do what they see is in their own private interests that may or may not coincide with the public interest.
BARTHOLOMEW I think that’s very clear. Philadelphia is a good example of that. A lot of the planning being done now is not by the Planning Commission.
HARRISON What’s happened under the Street administration? Has it given a shot to grassroots neighborhood organizations?
PAGE For the neighborhoods, it’s about where the city should help, where the city should lead, and where the city should get out of the way, because there’s an appropriate role for each of those and it depends on the context. Because most of my work has been with neighborhood groups, I think will is absolutely critical, but it’s not just political will, it’s the will of the residents and business owners to volunteer their time and be active members of the planning process.
The other aspect is that it has to be bottom up. And I think there’s a really interesting trend over the last few years—not only in Philadelphia— where you used to come into a neighborhood as an expert and help them create their plan. You do a lot of public process and you educate them about that planning process. What’s happening now is
that the neighborhoods are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
They’re coming to us with a very strong idea of what they want.
Through services like CNL they have information at their fingertips that they never had before.
STEINBERG What do you think is the proper role for neighborhoods in planning? What’s the proper role for the city? What’s the proper role for institutions?
PAGE I think it depends on the neighborhood—the question of managing growth versus trying to attract it. There are neighborhoods beset by new development. Northern Liberties is a great example. The neighborhood zoning committee might be asked to review a 70-story tower and they’re the first to admit they don’t know what to say about a 70-story tower. They’re doing the best they can to manage that process but they feel burdened.
There are other neighborhoods that I don’t think want the city anywhere near them until they feel they have a strong idea of what it is they want. I think there’s a lot of distrust of city government, not just Philadelphia, but what happened in the 60’s, the years of disinvestment.
Whether justified or not, a lot of the neighborhood groups have a distrust of city government. And they feel if they can do it for themselves, that’s really what’s going to change things, and they’ll bring the city in when they feel it’s the right time.
BROWNLEE Is the great city of the next century a mosaic of neighborhoods?
PAGE Sure, I think cities are already emerging in that way. It’s just each city has its own personality and character as to how they encourage neighborhood planning. Philadelphia is a bit more laissez faire. I think groups that are really organized and can raise some money, produce the plans. The neighborhoods that aren’t as organized are left out a little bit and are relying on the Planning Commission to
fill that gap. I think we’re in that revolutionary process in Philadelphia where the balance between the voice of the neighborhood and the power of the neighborhood, versus the voice of the city and the power of the city, needs to be worked out.
BARTHOLOMEW One of the layers is the layer of the region. Philadelphia as a city is one thing, but when you look at the Philadelphia region there are huge planning issues that have risen over the last 20 years with dispersal and population and the impact that’s had on the transportation systems. The eating up of land, it’s probably the major issue, and within Pennsylvania there are many counties that don’t think
about planning.
HARRISON What about the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative?
KAPLAN I was very excited when I heard about this. One of the big issues that no one seemed to want to deal with was abandonment—abandoned houses, vacant lots, and the destabilization of communities.
The critical thing is that the city needs to be strategic, and acquire and control this land so they can decide what to do with it in the future.
If we don’t own it, we can’t do anything with it.
Community land trusts came out of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. At first, it was only going to acquire gardens that already had a track record of being gardens because we didn’t want to be stuck with all this vacant land. Now it’s different, the price of land has gone up in the city and it’s not just poor neighborhoods that want space for the future, people are actually talking about permanent open space as
an integral part of a neighborhood in the city, especially with what we’ve seen in the last five years in terms of development. There are reuses for this land that may not have seemed relevant even five years ago. Other neighborhoods don’t want all this open space, they want redevelopment. The redevelopment is greatly impeded by lack of public ownership.
PAGE I think it was a clever move. I think the difficulty with this initiative was the way it was sold. You hear a presentation from one person that says it’s not a plan, it’s a way to reduce blight, but you look at other marketing materials that tell you NTI is credited with development and planning. On the ground there is a lot of confusion with what it does. The missed opportunity was helping neighborhoods understand
that they have to pick up some of the workload—that government can’t do everything. That was a message that was missing in the context of everything they were doing. As far as where it’s going, I think they are taking a really interesting step focusing on commercial corridors. I find that to be really positive for the city. They are a cancer in one way that all the properties surrounding the corridors deteriorate
but on the other hand they represent the symbolic part of the neighborhoods that people look upon fondly.
BROWNLEE What about the pressures of a boom?
KAPLAN There is a really sharp contrast between the planning and management of the office boom of the 80’s and the non-management of the housing boom that has been going on since 2000. There were rules and incentives at the time. There was a zoning code and people knew they had to follow the rules.
BARTHOLOMEW My recollection of when the Liberty Place proposal was made there was a height limit in the block along Market Street. The city hadn’t really thought about whether it was important to protect the view of city hall tower and William Penn. It was this abstract agreement, the gentleman’s agreement, and it was the proposal to break the height limit that really spurred the city and the planning
commission to develop some new zoning regulations that codified protections
of the view corridors.
PAGE One of the first things developers want to see is certainty. They want to know what they can build and how long it will take to do it because time is money. If you want to manage things formally, to protect resources like transportation resources and the environment, then I think that’s where the codes can be built. I think how it’s been really problematic is when the cult of personality starts to take its toll on places that really need a complete rethinking of what their future should be.
KAPLAN The zoning mapping program recognized that areas changed overtime and there were new patterns of land use and at the request of neighborhoods we would work with them to re-map the area—to change the zoning designation for that neighborhood—and sometimes if it involved certain unique situations we would actually add new classifications to the zoning code to accommodate uses that
hadn’t been anticipated.
STEINBERG What about our past? Is there away to come to some sort of balance to understand the Bacon legacy in Philadelphia?
PAGE I think the good thing is, and I’m going to talk about this very broadly, is his confidence in the city even despite trends that were negativelyimpacting it. I think the downside is the overreach, which has raised some of the levels of distrust in city government. He brought a certain level of intellectualism to the process as well as international expertise and knowledge to Philadelphia. On the other hand, I think
there were times that he needed to step back a little bit and sometimes he was forced to do that.
KAPLAN I would also say I think it was a real strength that he saw the possibilities for remaking the older sections of the city without tearing them down. This city did relatively well in terms of maintaining a lot of neighborhoods, and the Society Hill model was incredibly important to show how you could take an 18th/19th century neighborhood and make it livable for people and attract suburbanites to the city, because that was one of the goals of the plan.
I think in a way his greatest strength was his greatest weakness— seeing the city purely in physical terms and ignoring some of the economic, social and political realities—particularly racial conflicts in the city. The other negative was that, and other people working on the Commission at the time have told me this, that he sold out the Northeast. He was a real elitist and really concerned with how downtown was going to look and how it was going to be redeveloped and he didn’t really have the patience when the Northeast was being developed to apply the same kinds of design and planning principles. To maintain some type of political peace, he let the developers do what they wanted. I don’t know if that’s absolutely true, but it looks that way.
BARTHOLOMEW I think the one thing that struck me about Bacon, and explained a lot of his success, is that he was an incredible salesperson. I took his course at Penn and came out of it all charged up to be an urban designer. He was very, very convincing about his ideas.
He was very passionate about whatever it was. I think in the end, being able to sell his ideas to mayors, business leaders and others, was incredibly important.
STEINBERG So where do we go?
BARTHOLOMEW Well I think the most important step is to re-establish the Planning Commission as an essential part of city government.
Both the commission itself and the funding that goes to the staff. Leadership in politics is essential. If you have the right leader who is genuinely interested in planning, it forms a framework that people can relate to whether they are developers, citizens or neighborhood groups. It takes leadership and commitment at the top.
KAPLAN I think planning and historic preservation should not be viewed as obstacles to economic development, but basic arrows in the quiver of how you build a great city and keep it progressing economically and socially. I also think that the Zoning Board needs to understand that the only grounds for giving a variance are for hardship and that hardship is not economic hardship. That hardship relates to the uniqueness of the site—if the owner cannot develop the site in accordance to zoning because of some unique physical aspect of that site. If you really stuck to that, I would say 90 percent of the problems we have would go away. That is not to say the zoning code shouldn’t be revised or that we shouldn’t re-map some parts of the city to update zoning so it’s more in accordance with current community goals.
But if you have rules, you need to play by them.
PAGE I think re-mapping and revising is important but I think my inclination would be to take some funds given to the Planning Commission and actually use them as a means of sparking neighborhood competition and collaboration. An example of this is Wireless Philadelphia, a top-down measure to promote an infrastructure for an entire city that I think the money would be better spent dolling out grants to neighborhoods that have a specific plan on how to use that technology in their neighborhood. I think it’s that level of competition, helping the neighborhoods figure it out for themselves, that is necessary for their future.

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