Top Philadelphia planner is sworn in

Jan. 28

By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly

Philadelphia got a first look at its new planning and commerce czar as former Washington D.C. planner and Philadelphia native Andrew Altman was sworn into office at city hall on Monday.

Altman, 45, described his appointment as a homecoming, briefly reminiscing about his boyhood in Germantown, where by age 10 he was sketching urban plans for parts of Philadelphia.

“We’re actually going to dust those plans off,” Altman joked during his acceptance speech, “and see if they’re still relevant.”

So far, Altman has been universally praised as a competent and progressive planner. He says he decided to leave his New York firm and come to Philadelphia after attending the public presentation of the PennPraxis waterfront plan in November and, weeks later, The Inquirer’s Great Expectations Citizen Convention, at which Nutter gave an impassioned speech.

“Honestly, I got caught up in the energy of it all,” Altman explained to reporters. “I felt very proud to be a Philadelphian, and I walked away saying to myself: ‘I want to be a part of this.’”

Altman’s arrival also represents a key bureaucratic shift.

While the city had been awaiting a new director of city planning, Altman’s job is much larger. His portfolio combines two cabinet-level posts – Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and the Director of Commerce.

The newly-created position will bring diverse agencies under one roof – City Planning, L&I, the Historical Commission, the Office of Housing and Community Development, and others. The idea is to unite those who plan with those who implement, and it could mean a focus on smart development that Philadelphia hasn’t seen since Ed Bacon.

“I think he’s the real deal,” said Harris Steinberg, lead planner of the recent PennPraxis plan for the Delaware Riverfront. “The city has been waiting for this kind of person to be in this kind of position for a long time.”

A stronger center

Unlike Boston and Portland, which have strong central planning agencies, Philadelphia’s charter divides responsibility for development between nearly a dozen agencies and relegates the actual Planning Commission to a mere advisory role.

In creating Altman’s post, Steinberg said Nutter had borrowed a page from the playbook of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, choosing to corral all the departments that impact land use and economic development inside the pen of one powerful office.

“There’ll be a coordinated way to grow planning and development in this city,” Steinberg said. “We’ve been aching for this for generations.”

Gary Hack, dean of the Penn School of Design and former director of City Planning under Mayor Street, predicted Altman’s tenure would see city agencies pulling in the same direction.

“We’ll see the same focus that you had under N.T.I., but applied to the whole sector of construction and development,” Hack said. It so happens Hack was Altman’s professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He regards his former student simply as “the best.”

As for the still-vacant position of City Planning Director, recently held by Janice Woodcock, Altman said the search was on.

“One of my goals right off the bat is to get a great planner in that job,” he said.

Altman’s Past

If headlines are any gauge, Altman’s tenure in the nation’s capital was a success. When he resigned his last public post in that city in 2005, the Washington Post ran a fawning headline:

Altman’s Departure Has Developers Sighing

Raised in Philadelphia and educated at Temple and M.I.T., Altman worked as a planner in Oakland, California before being tapped by then-mayor Anthony Williams to head Washington’s city planning department in 1999.

Altman arrived to find the city in financial crisis, and a decimated planning department with only a half-dozen planners. Yet he soon found himself in the thick of a development boom, with some 300 major projects in the pipeline.

“When I started, you would not have said Washington is a growth city,” he recalled. “Then it just took off.”

According to articles in the Post, Altman built a strong agency that won numerous awards for plans to revitalize various neighborhoods: Downtown, The Mount Vernon Triangle, H Street NE, and the waterfront.

One key to his success was “transparency”.

“You have a process that people know and understand, a clear process that’s transparent,” Altman said on Monday. “You want everyone to be able to say, ‘Okay, I see how a project goes. I see where I can weigh in.’”

The Post reports that Altman “clashed with some residents over his calls for high-density development around Metro stations,” an idea commonly called Transit-Oriented Development, and one that is favored by planning reformers and green building advocates in Philadelphia.

Another “Forgotten River”

In 2004 Altman was asked to head up the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., a quasi-public agency charged with implementing the city’s $8 billion, 20-year master plan to revitalize both banks of the Anacostia River.

While the Potomac shore is studded with national monuments, the Anacostia, to the southeast, was dubbed “Washington’s forgotten river,” by Mayor Williams. It flows past a gritty mix of industrial and residential uses.

In 10 months as head of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., Altman put his stamp on the vast project, notably the planning for the new Washington Nationals baseball park, a 41,000-seat riverfront stadium now under construction.

He left that job in 2005 to found Altman Development LLC, a New York-based company specializing in large-scale urban redevelopment.

Altman on the Waterfront

Of course, Philadelphia has a forgotten riverfront, too. And a simmering casino crisis. And struggling neighborhoods. And a pending comprehensive plan. And ongoing zoning reform.

Yesterday’s press conference offered a chance to get the briefest of hints about what the new planning czar has in store for his hometown.

On the waterfront, Altman saw similarities to Washington:

“Washington was an older industrial waterfront, parts of it neglected for a long time. Nobody really thought Washington DC was a waterfront city. Nobody thought the Anacostia was a place that could be a centerpiece… In many ways, the waterfront of Philadelphia has been a similar situation.”

“Obviously [the Delaware waterfront] is much longer, and much more industrial than Washington was,” he said. “But in the sense of it being an underutilized asset that can offer some enormous potential, absolutely.”

Altman said he would be out walking the Delaware in the coming weeks, as he prepared to take office in February. As for the PennPraxis plan, he said he did not know the specifics, but found the ambition exciting and is eager to “see for myself how to make that happen.”

“One of my mentors in graduate school said: ‘To plan is human. To implement is divine,’” he said.

Altman on Casinos

Asked by a reporter how he would handle the “mess” of the casinos, Altman said he need time to examine the issue.

“To be completely honest, I have to study it first.” He said. “I have to learn everything about it. See what the plans are.  Obviously it is going to be a first priority.”

Pressed by another reporter as to whether he would have stuck casinos on the Anacostia riverfront, Altman said it was “hard to say.”

Altman on High-Rise Development

“I don’t think it’s an either-or. One of the things that makes cities interesting is their variety. You have to look at the context, and at how the city is growing and changing.”

Altman on Eminent Domain

“You have to use it judiciously. Often the tool gets disparaged, but what matters is how government uses the tool. It should be a last resort.”

Altman on his New Job

“I believe what Mayor Nutter was looking for when he appointed me is someone who brings a balanced perspective. I hopefully bring an appreciation that economic development and planning are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re mutually supportive.

“People always say, ‘Oh, if only economic development was connected to planning. If only planning was connected to economic development.’ … Well here’s a chance to pull it all together.”

Contact the reporter at blanchard.matt@gmail.com

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