Nutter calls for waterfront action
Photos by Ed Hille
Action Plan for Central Delaware Waterfront
By Kellie Patrick Gates
Thursday night Mayor Michael Nutter whipped up the riverfront faithful with the news that he, too, believed in their Central Delaware vision.
“I share your vision for our waterfront,” he said. “Tonight, we talk about a Declaration on the Delaware.”
Nutter thanked the citizens, the waterfront neighborhood organizations, the politicians and the planners for the months of brainstorming that led first to a vision of a river of play, of work, of public access and then to the plan on how to make that vision real – the action plan that was unveiled that night.
Nutter shared their faith in Philadelphia, he told them, but that was not enough – not if this plan was to be kept off a dusty shelf. It was time for work, he said, and he told his rapt audience he had already started.
The vision needs a manager, a guide to take it from paper to reality, so says the Action Plan for the Central Delaware – 10 steps designed to implement the civic vision for the Delaware over the next 10 years. Nutter said he has begun work on a new agency whose sole mission is to shepherd the plan from paper to reality.
To make way for it, he will demystify the secretive and often-criticized Penn’s Landing Corporation, he told the crowd of 500 gathered, ironically enough, at Penn’s Landing – in the Independence Seaport Museum.
Nutter pledged to name new board members within a month. Maybe the group needed a new name – he casually called it the Delaware Waterfront Corporation. It would certainly have a new way of doing business, he said. Meetings will be open, as will the books. The website will contain helpful information. He queued the music, and “Let the Sunshine In” flooded the auditorium. The audience got it – they got everything about the mayor’s address. They liked his wit, they liked his charm, they really liked his plans to re-examine the casino question.
Nutter asked Penn Praxis, the clinical arm of the Penn School of Design and the group that brought Philadelphians together to create the Central Delaware Plan, to take a look and report back to him in two months.
“Let me be clear again: I share the opinion that the two casinos, as currently designed, simply do not fit with the Civic Vision” for the waterfront, Nutter said. He said he wants Penn Praxis to review the casino designs and determine whether they can contribute to the future of the waterfront as is or in a modified form – or if there is no way to make any casino fit into the plan.
Penn Praxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg moderated a discussion of the Action Plan just prior to Nutter’s speech. He, too, said that the casinos, as designed, did not fit the vision. “They are large windowless boxes” that would rely heavily on automotive traffic, he said. But Steinberg indicated that if Foxwoods and SugarHouse do open on the Delaware, they could be redesigned in ways that would better match the human-scale streetscape the Central Delaware vision calls for.
The audience, many of whom had worked on the Vision and the implementation plan, liked it when Steinberg said it, too. But the audience was devoid of people who want the casinos. The governor wasn’t there talking about tax relief, pro-casino group Fishtown FACT wasn’t there talking about jobs, and the developers of Foxwoods and SugarHouse were not there to remind everyone that they have no intention of building elsewhere, or in another way.
Reached by email after the event, SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said that whatever Praxis recommends to the city, it will not affect SugarHouse’s plans.
“The City Planning Commission approved our Plan of Development in May 2007. In addition, when the Supreme Court ruled in our favor in December, they deemed our Plan of Development to be finally approved and requiring no further action from City Council. The Supreme Court, in the same order, also required the City to zone our site as a CED and process our permit applications,” she said. “We plan to build our casino as designed and as approved by the Planning Commission.”
Foxwoods spokeswoman Maureen Garrity, also responding by email, had similar sentiments and clearly expressed frustration over the design and location examination.
“The Supreme Court has been very clear: The City cannot determine casino sites. The Court has also been clear in its mandate to the City that it must comply with the law and allow our project to move forward,” she said.
“Foxwoods has attempted to work with this administration and to adhere to the law. Still, the City refuses to comply with the Supreme Court’s order and continues to engage in a pattern of delay, leaving us few options but to return to the Court for relief.
Mayor Street championed casinos as a way to reduce city wage taxes and boost development. Garrity pointed out that while Nutter has been critical of the casinos, he “anticipates receiving revenues from both Philadelphia casinos in 2011” in his budget projections.
Nutter said it was good to bring Praxis in because they are an objective third party, but reflecting on Steinberg’s remarks at the event, Garrity said she does not agree.
“It is further confusing that Penn Praxis can be called an ‘honest, legitimate third-party,’ to conduct an analysis of casino plans when its executive director continues to say casinos don’t fit into their plan.”
Steinberg said that Praxis does not have a bias.
“We are agnostic on use. It’s about form, the impact of traffic and access to the riverfront,” he said. “Any form of development, not just casinos, would be held to these standards.”
Garrity said that Foxwoods’ plans actually are consistent with many of the Central Delaware waterfront plan’s development goals. “We fully intend to move forward with our project – which includes landscaped areas, waterfront access and biking and walking trails – on our site on South Columbus Boulevard,” she said.
The casino wars are far from over. The Supreme Court is still considering whether the city had the right to issue a license for SugarHouse to build into the riverbank under the pro-casino Street administration, and, if it did, whether the Nutter administration had the right to revoke it. The casino needs that permit to build as planned. And the SugarHouse site – just up the street from the Thursday night gathering – is still undergoing a historical review. The spot was once the home of a Revolutionary War Fort and, long before that, much Native American activity. The Army Corp of Engineers must weigh the potential impact on history when determining whether to give SugarHouse another permit it needs to build as planned.
Legislative battles are also being waged, and some similar battles rage on around Foxwoods, too. For example, after modifying their plan, Foxwoods officials say they no longer need a riparian license – the kind SugarHouse is now fighting for in the Supreme Court. But local state legislators, who maintain that the General Assembly has the exclusive right to grant riparian licenses to a project of this size, say the casino does need this license. And they promise a legal battle if Foxwoods starts to build without one.
In a telephone interview Friday, Steinberg said that Penn Praxis’ charge centered around the design questions, not the political ones.
And from a design standpoint, it is possible to create casinos that fit the plan. Something that “is not only acceptable, but that would make the casinos contributing members of the waterfront,” he said.
The scale of individual buildings could be changed to fit the street grid the plan calls for creating at the waterfront, he said. People could arrive at the casinos via public transit, or park their cars off-site.
That doesn’t mean Steinberg doesn’t see the difficulties. He sees three major obstacles:
“As currently designed, the casinos follow the American business model of a big box in a sea of parking,” he said.
The state has mandated that the casinos turn over 54 percent of their revenue, and when a business is forced to fork over that much, it isn’t left with a lot of room in a budget to spend on design, he said.
“Third, these sites were selected as part of the Gaming Control Board’s process – so the sites and the developers came as one. And that pre-dated the Civic Vision. And the Planning Commission approved their plans.”
So changing the way the casinos would look and work will be hard, he said, “But that’s where you would imagine the city and its regulatory authority could play a role, depending on where things shake out in the Supreme Court right now.”
Steinberg said he is uncertain how the mayor intends to use the information Praxis will provide. Also, he does not yet know whether that report will include suggestions on how to address some of the obstacles to changing the casinos, he said.
Nutter spokeswoman Maura Kennedy would not discuss the feasibility of getting the casinos to change their plans, saying it would be premature to do so before Praxis makes its recommendations.
“We aren’t going to anticipate their results,” she said. “We are going to let them have a thoughtful discussion, and once we see their findings, we will create our actions from there.”
But Thursday night was not about such obstacles. The crowd, their mayor and the other speakers did not dwell on the obstacles in the way of their hopes for the waterfront. The mayor was head cheer leader, the audience was at a pep rally. They all were focused only on the waterfront goals.
The Action Plan calls for the development of parks and trails along the river, and Nutter said he was going to get right on that, too.
Audible wows and gasps could be heard when Nutter promised the city would turn a run-down pier at the foot of Race Street into a park – the sort of “urban front lawn” that New York City has created with some of its old Hudson River piers – by next summer.
“Let this reclamation serve as our lighthouse to transform other derelict and dangerous places into green space,” he said.
The mayor also pledged $250,000 to match grant money the Center City District has received to build a waterfront trail.
Nutter and other speakers said that the waterfront would never live up to its potential without good planning, which takes time. But something had to happen quickly, they said, to protect the resource while the city works on new zoning and a master plan.
Nutter said Councilman Frank DiCicco and the City Planning Commission were already working on an interim waterfront zoning bill that would be proposed to Council this fall.
As Nutter neared the end of his remarks, he once again thanked those who helped create the plan. “You’ve heard me say it’s a new day and a new way for Philadelphia,” he told them. “You are the true embodiment of that process.”
With that, he asked the audience to think ahead. His audio/visual team showed a simulated airplane ride over the Central Delaware after the plan has had its impact. This was the same video Penn Praxis played when it unveiled the vision the Action Plan is based on. As the song Proud Mary played, the audience spontaneously began to clap to the beat of “rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.”
Contact the reporter at email@example.com
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.