Working on something comprehensive

Planning Commission neighborhood outreach

Dec. 4

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Philadelphia’s comprehensive plan – the document that theoretically serves as the blueprint for future growth – has not been comprehensively updated since the 1960s.

That’s the development equivalent of driving with an outdated road map.

But with a new, planning-oriented mayor about to take office and grant money for some early stage action in hand, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission has begun work on a new comprehensive plan. And it hopes to get guidance from Philadelphians across the city in a series of public workshops that begin Tuesday and run through January.

Revamping the comprehensive plan is urgently important, said the Planning Commission’s  Deputy Executive Director, Gary Jastrzab, and Director of Strategic Planning and Policy, Alan Urek.

It’s not that the existing comprehensive plan has been left untouched since John F. Kennedy was president. But the updates have been made piecemeal, through a series of district- and neighborhood-specific plans that do not look at the city as a whole, Jastrzab said.

Here and across the country, baby boomers and others are already moving back to urban areas. And the rising cost of gasoline will make dense, walk-able, public-transportation accessible development even more attractive.

Philadelphia and many older cities have watched their formerly strong industrial base slip away. This has left them with barren or underutilized space with which to reinvent and revitalize themselves. And here as in many other places, much of the land in question is supreme, waterfront real estate.

All of that translates into a lot of development pressure. Growth is good, Urek said, but without a plan, there is danger of imbalance – such as consuming too much industrial land with housing.

For these reasons, other cities have recently completed new comprehensive plans – including New York and Seattle. And many others, such as Baltimore, are somewhere in the process.

“We need to be competitive with other cities,” Urek said. And that means careful consideration of what gets built where, and how much land will be needed, now and in the future, for residences, industries, roads, train tracks and parks.

In all, Urek estimates it will take two to three years to finish a new comprehensive plan, including the recently begun planning phase, called Imagine Philadelphia. Laying the Foundation.  The planning alone will cost about $300,000, Jastrzab said, and it will likely be entirely covered by grant money. The Planning Commission has received a $100,000 grant from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and it is waiting to hear about an additional, larger grant from the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development.

No money has been secured yet for the second phase – the actual creating of the plan and associated research and studies. Mayor-elect Michael Nutter’s team is familiar with and supportive of phase one, Jastrzab said. And smart development was a big part of his election campaign. But Nutter has not yet pledged to find a way to pay for a comprehensive plan. “We haven’t gotten to that stage yet, but we would hope that would happen,” Jastrzab said. That said, during a very brief conversation after making a speech to the Great Expectations Citizens Convention on Sunday, Nutter said he supports a new Comprehensive Plan for Philadelphia.

This past summer, the Planning Commission launched the project by seeking experts’ opinions through a series of roundtable discussions about a variety of topics including economic development, housing and community development, mobility, preservation, public services, regulatory reform, the role of community groups, and urban design. These participants then proposed a number of citywide goals.

The upcoming public forums are the next piece of the puzzle, Jastrzab said. Not only would the input be used for a comprehensive plan, it will also help inform the Zoning Code Commission, charged with updating the city’s zoning codes.

When the ZCC began its work, some critics on and off the board voiced frustration over not having a comprehensive plan as a guide.

“In a perfect planning world, we would do a comprehensive plan, then the zoning changes,” Urek said. “But now we have a chance to catch up, and to inform each other along the way.”

The roundtable results and the feedback from the community sessions will be woven together with Planning Commission staff research to end the Imagine phase of Philadelphia’s comprehensive plan effort with a series of policy papers. While these may evolve slightly, the topics will likely include: Competitiveness, GreenPlan Philadelphia (open space and sustainability), consumer economy, producer economy, neighborhoods and connectivity, public facilities and infrastructure, housing, and transportation.

Urek said each report will serve as a guide for a portion of a comprehensive plan. But along with expert and citizen opinions and desires, it will contain questions that must be answered as part of Phase II.

For example, he said, while many old industries are dead, new industries – such as biotech – are thriving. And yet-to-be-created industries could be coming. So it is likely some sort of study will be needed to determine how much industrial land should be kept free of other kinds of development.

In addition to using feedback from the public sessions, Jastrzab said the ZCC will have these policy papers in hand by next summer. And although the referendum that created the ZCC said their work would be finished by then, all parties involved think that is unrealistic and that an extension will be sought from City Council.

These papers will also serve as a recommendation to Nutter that a full comprehensive plan is needed, Jastrzab said.

Kellie Patrick Gates is a former Inquirer reporter. Contact her at



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