Neighbors turn out for riverfront forums

Neighborhoods Vocal On Waterfront Development
By: Jenny DeHuff, The Bulletin
12/15/2006

Philadelphia – In the third of a series of public forums, the largest turnout yet of neighbors, businesspeople, developers, laborers, city officials and everyday soccer moms convened to discuss their values and hopes for the central Delaware waterfront at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing Thursday night.
When Mayor Street signed an executive order creating the 45-member Central Delaware Advisory Group back in October, it spawned an abundance of citizen input in the planning processes along the water’s edge. Since then, PennPraxis of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and the Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education have held public discussion sessions at various locations around the city. This is being done in an effort to get vocal participation from the surrounding neighborhoods – neighborhoods that would be most affected by waterfront development.
This is the first time Philadelphia has reached out to citizens for planning and development involvement, and approximately 300 came out to offer their views Thursday night.
“Through the years, it has reached a civic crescendo,” Harris Steinberg said, architect and executive director of PennPraxis.
“These values tonight will be considered across several evenings of city-wide conversations.” Steinberg said there will be more public forum sessions in January nd February, as well as public workshops involving design professionals and citizens. A civic exercise, “History of the Future” comprised of value-based planning principles, starts in February.
“I want there to be continuous public access in areas where it is appropriate,” Janice Woodcock, executive director of the City Planning Commission said.
“This is a realization of what the public wants. It’s like a large conversation that will yield an incredible result. People really care and want large projects looked at carefully.”
Woodcock summed it up by saying, “It’s citizen passion for good design.”
City councilman Frank DiCicco sat in the front row and listened to encouraging words from Harris Steinberg, Janice Woodcock and Harris Sokoloff, Ph.D., a main developer of the Penn Project on Civic Engagement.
DiCicco said the forum would help developers form a master plan for the central Delaware waterfront.
“We’ll have a better understanding of what they want to build. The challenge is left up to officials to see what the public wants. It will set the tone for the next 30 years,” he said.
“This process is an open and transparent apolitical process,” Steinberg said.
“It’s tied to the government so it carries authority, but it’s apolitical so it’s civic.”
Several building proposals have been sent across city officials’ desks, including the casino bids and the “Philadelphia River City” plan, which would occupy several blocks along JFK Boulevard adjacent to the Schuylkill River.
Yesterday city council unanimously passed the ordinance that limits buildings on certain areas of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to 125 feet. Previously, developers have been able to build up to 600 feet by right. Councilman Darrell Clarke claimed after the meeting that his intention is to force public discussion requiring builders to ask for a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment if they want to build taller than 125 feet. This would help slow the process.
Pete Hoskins, former streets commissioner, park director and zoo president, said he agreed with waterfront development.
“This is the farthest the city has ever come. We’re surrounded on three sides by rivers. How can we be against taking greater advantage of our waterfront?”
Among the major values identified at last night’s meeting, most people listed there priorities were increased pedestrian accessibility to the waterfront, maintained residential real estate value, safety and security in neighborhoods, marina access, increased recreation and activities in the area, improved aesthetics and several expressed their love for high-rises and a dazzling, growing skyline.
James Quilligan, a waterfront resident, was appreciative of a partnership between city developers and civilians.
“I want to see an integrated plan for the waterfront that really works this time. We’ve had a number of failures…People are now guaranteed input in the process. In the past, the city kept the decision-making behind closed doors,” he said.
Laura Chisholm of Queen’s Village is new to her area.
“It seems [the waterfront] has a lot of potential in the area and in the surrounding areas,” she said. Chisholm said she was an advocate of development from Independence Hall to Penn’s Landing.
Steinberg and other officials said more public forum discussions like last night’s will assemble in the beginning of the new year, and by fall of 2007 a public exhibition will be in place, illustrating the plans and designs that resulted.
Staff Writer Jim McCaffrey contributed to this article.

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