A long view of the Penn’s Landing Corp.

Stanhope Browne at Penn’s Landing. Penn’s Landing (photo at right) courtesy of Brad Maule, check out his complete portfolio at www.phillyskyline.com/lovecopter

Dec. 22

By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

As the city moves slowly ahead in forming a new waterfront management agency to replace the current Penn’s Landing Corporation, a top priority of the Action Plan coordinated by PennPraxis, Stanhope Browne has been reflecting on the history of the corporation.

Browne literally had a front seat for most of that history. He was on the board of the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation that preceded the PLC, had an active role on the PLC board through much of the 1970s, and was chairman of that board from 1981 to 1997.

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So Browne has given many years of thought to the creation of a viable Central Delaware waterfront. He and the other board members took their roles seriously and had as their goal the creation of a world-class urban amenity developed in an open process, he said in a recent interview with PlanPhilly.

There are many parallels between the plans of those early years and the Vision Plan of today. Browne and his colleagues looked to the great sites throughout the world for models and inspiration. They conducted what they called “brainstorming sessions” — what may now be called charettes. They sought to build a new extension of the city called Penn’s Landing that would benefit the entire city economically.

But they also ran into high obstacles, including the mistakes in the creation of Interstate 95, the challenge of securing funds for developers’ projects, and the ever-changing political climate of Philadelphia.

Now retired from his career as a partner of the law firm Dechert LLP, Browne finds himself agreeing with many of the proposals of the PennPraxis Vision Plan. And he has definite ideas about who should serve on the next incarnation of the Penn’s Landing Corporation and what their priorities should be.

Saving Society Hill

When Society Hill was undergoing its major redevelopment in the 1950s, the urban renewal movement of that time generally appointed a developer to tear down derelict buildings and put up new ones. But city planner Ed Bacon did not think destroying the historic structures was the best answer for Society Hill. He believed that private citizens rather than developers should take on the major role in the restoration of the buildings. Thus, the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation was incorporated in 1956 to oversee that effort. (It has since evolved into the very successful Center City Development Corporation.)

The city was represented on the OPDC board by the mayor and certain other officials, but the majority of the board members came from the private sector and were for the most part “business and professional leaders from Philadelphia’s power elite,” Browne said.

OPDC was formed with the support of Mayor Richardson Dilworth. His successor, James Tate, “loved the idea of government-private sector cooperation,” Browne said. Tate regularly attended OPDC meetings.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the city was already turning its attention to the Central Delaware waterfront. The first master plan for Penn’s Landing was drawn in 1963 by the architectural firm Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham, and it included an embarcadero, major buildings and a tower at the foot of Market Street. Peter Schauffler, of the city commerce director’s office, was in charge of getting the work under way, but Tate realized this new site required a governing body, and he looked to the OPDC for supervision.

Browne had been active in the Society Hill residents’ battle to lower and cap the new superhighway, I-95. The state highway department argued that the residents on the Hill just wanted to protect their river views. “But hardly anybody in Society Hill had a view out over the water,” Browne said. The residents’ response to the state: “This is the urban fabric of America’s most historic square mile. Philadelphia was born at the riverfront. The connection between Independence National Historical Park, Society Hill and the rest of the historic district on the west and the riverfront on the east is very important. You will totally destroy that connection!”

The residents won the fight. “But in order to make that argument, we had to say what’s going to be on the other side of I-95. It was at the time just a lot of rotted piers.”

The answer was already in the works. Schauffler had the old docks and piers torn down, and preparations were under way for the erection of a superstructure at Penn’s Landing.

Tate then formed the Penn’s Landing Corporation in 1970 as a subsidiary of OPDC. The executive committee of OPDC, which included leaders from the real estate and banking sectors, became the board of directors of the fledgling Penn’s Landing Corporation. “The majority of them were for the most part prestigious civic leaders, and the minority were ex-officio city people,” said Browne who as an attorney was named the corporation’s first secretary. The first chairman was Steven Gardner, then CEO of Girard Bank.

The Second Plan

It had been seven years since the first master plan was drawn. Society Hill and Independence Park had made major strides, and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was making a big splash. A new plan for Penn’s Landing was in order. “Murphy Levy Wurman, a well-regarded young firm of architects, did the new master plan,” Browne recalled.

“At that point in time, the perceived truth was that for something like the key center of Penn’s Landing (roughly from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge south to South Street), you wanted one developer with a unified proposal prepared in accordance with the site’s official master plan,” Browne said. “The thinking in those days, now somewhat outmoded, was that the city and state governments, having funded the creation of the basic land mass, would be rewarded with a larger tax base. It would have some open spaces, obviously — some park-like atmosphere to a certain extent. The major part of the space would be a mixture of uses — a museum, shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities and the like. In large part these uses would be profit-making ventures that would increase the tax base. But to attract visitors the new structures should be of world-class design. This was a tall order, but we had before us the success of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, based on the festival marketplace model. We issued what is known as a ‘request for proposals’ based on our new master plan. We went through that process several times from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.”

Criticism that Penn’s Landing Corporation acted behind closed doors was not heard back then, Browne said. “Since nothing visible was happening apart from the demolition of the rotting piers and the creation of the new land mass, and since we apparently did nothing controversial, Penn’s Landing received virtually no attention from the news media. It never occurred to the board to have a policy on the issue, one way or the other,” Browne remembered. “Things changed in the 1990s. News media attention caused the Penn’s Landing board to adopt a policy of full access to our meetings, with the obvious exceptions of such things as discussions of tactics in negotiations with developers. During my entire sixteen years as chairman it was my personal policy to be as completely open as possible. We acted for an elected government and we were financed by the taxpayers. We should not close our doors.”

Browne left the scene in 1972, when his law firm sent him to run its Brussels office. He returned in 1976 and for the first time saw the depressed and covered I-95 — and just beyond, the undeveloped stretch of Penn’s Landing.

Browne was put back on the boards of the Penn’s Landing Corporation and the OPDC, but “nothing much was happening” on the waterfront.

A Canadian developer had proposed a plan but pulled out because the ramp system for I-95, which would provide access to the site, was still being debated. Then representatives of a Washington firm were driving up to the site, but missed the turn-off from I-95; when they saw how long it would take to the next exit, they dropped out of the project.

After a fruitless national search for a developer who would do the entire site and several other disappointments, in the late 1970s the corporation board started negotiations for a smaller-scale proposal for an apartment house at Penn’s Landing. “It wasn’t really what we wanted, and it had to be a sort of closed-off enclave. But it was all we had,” Browne said.

The city administration under Mayor Bill Green and Commerce Director Richard Doran had been supportive of the corporation board, but when the apartment proposal came before the City Planning Commission, “they dumped all over it. They made it clear that they thought the idea was unacceptable.”

In the aftermath of that incident the leadership of the corporation underwent an overhaul, and to Browne’s “surprise and consternation,” he was asked to serve as chairman in 1981.

It was also decided that a new master plan was needed in order bring more public space to Penn’s Landing. A one-day brainstorming session was held on the top floor of what was then the Port of History Museum. Mayor Green participated and stayed the entire day. The session leader asked everyone to begin by completing a sentence, in 25 words or less, that began, “Ten years from now, Penn’s Landing is …”

“And that got us re-started,” Browne said. The session called for dramatic public space, a better museum, restaurants and perhaps a hotel. “We wanted major buildings, and envisioned a great public space encircled by two- and three-story structures,” he said.

The new master plan, produced by the Cope Linder architectural firm, centered on the Great Plaza, which began as a quarter-circle gathering space and grew into a half-circle performing arts amphitheater at Browne’s urging. “But we made a big mistake; we didn’t realize how popular the space would become. So we didn’t design a public stage,” or the dressing rooms and other facilities a permanent theater would need.

Again, the corporation sought proposals from developers. Disney offered an exciting plan that was ultimately turned down. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum was briefly considered for Philadelphia before it went to Cleveland.

“Our best proposal was Willard Rouse’s plan,” a multi-million dollar entertainment and retail project. “It was very imaginative; it was very ambitious; it was very exciting,” Browne said.

The Rouse proposal is more often remembered for a shadow that was cast over the Penn’s Landing efforts in the mid-80s. City Councilman Leland Beloff and mob boss Nicky Scarfo tried to extort $1 million from Rouse to pass legislation that would allow his project to proceed. Penn’s Landing Corporation was a victim of the incident, and not a corrupt partner, Browne emphatically pointed out.

What actually stymied the Rouse project was the withdrawal of his funding sources.

Browne said that he came to realize that any development of Penn’s Landing can’t happen unless four elements are present and in harmony for a sufficient time period:

• An overall idea that is so good it creates excitement and sells itself.
• A developer with an optimistic view of the likely success of that idea.
• A private market funding source willing to stick with the developer.
• A city administration with the political will to push hard for the idea and for the necessary public funding.

A New Structure

Municipal government was always in control of Penn’s Landing Corporation “because they gave us our budget,” Browne said. “If we did something the Mayor didn’t like, no more money. … Green and Doran did not say that to me, but that was reality.”

In the mid 1980s, the administration no longer supported the influence of OPDC on the corporation board. Browne calls it the “Doran Revolution.” Penn’s Landing Corporation was withdrawn from OPDC and made a subsidiary of the Port Corporation; Browne was elected to the board of the Port Corporation, and one of its other directors was elected to oversee Penn’s Landing. Browne strongly objected to this move, but finally accepted it.

The restructuring didn’t last long, however. Green did not seek another term. When Wilson Goode became mayor, Browne in accordance with standard protocol offered his resignation but was asked to stay. Mayor Goode agreed that Penn’s Landing should be disconnected from the Port Corporation.

“We re-did the bylaws. A much greater number of members were ex-officio,” and the board became in effect a subsidiary of city government. “Perhaps it should have been that from the beginning,” Browne said.

Goode’s attention, initially, was far from Penn’s Landing. “Uppermost in his mind was the state of disadvantaged people in Philadelphia and the educational system,” Browne said. “He wasn’t sure about Penn’s Landing, so there was an uneasy period. Then he came to understand the importance of economic development and how interrelated it was to everything else. And he became a firm advocate of Penn’s Landing.”

The next occupant of the Mayor’s office was Ed Rendell, who “politicized” Penn’s Landing, according to Browne. The balance between board members who brought needed skills to the board and members who where chosen for political reasons shifted more to the latter.
The priority for the corporation “went from how do we get the best kind of design to how to get a deal done soon,” Browne said.

In the late 1990s, Browne retired from his law firm and resigned from the Penn’s Landing Corporation. In 1999 he and his wife followed their longtime dream to live in Paris.

The Next Chapter

In 2002, Browne and his wife moved back to their home in Society Hill, where he continues to wish the best for the future of Penn’s Landing. But his opinions on how that can be accomplished have evolved.

After his years of leadership on the board, three years of living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and further research into what makes an urban waterfront succeed, he has drawn some conclusions.

What all great cities have are “world-class urban amenities,” said Browne. As examples, he listed a museum such as the Guggenheim Art Museum in Bilbao, a park such as the Millennium Park in Chicago, a performing arts building such as the Opera House in Sydney, an entertainment setting such as Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, or simply a structure built for its own sake such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which is the most visited non-religious structure in the world. “The one thing these places all have in common is that they were all superbly designed,” he said.

Browne expressed doubt as to whether the original hire-one-developer approach would produce the best possible design, or would work at all now that the PennPraxis Vision Plan is pointing in exciting new directions.

And who can make that happen in Philadelphia?

“There should be three kinds of people on a reformed Penn’s Landing Corporation board, Browne said.

“There should be political figures; this is, after all, funded by the city. The city is going to demand representation,” he said. “You need politicians. You don’t politicize it, but you’ve got to have government there.”

The second group should consist of private sector civic leaders with various skills from their business or professional life, especially those with backgrounds in finance, real estate, tourism and the like, plus representatives of the communities that have a stake in the waterfront.

The third group should consist of what Browne calls “connoisseurs.“ This third group would consist of people with design expertise. They are people aesthetically versed in many arts and able to act as judges in matters of taste. “Some connoisseurs would be professionals in various design fields. Others might be some of the political, business and professional leaders who have acquired the relevant knowledge as a matter of personal interest.”

He cites the late Anne d’Harnoncourt, who directed the Philadelphia Museum of Art for 25 years, as the perfect example of the kind of person needed on the Penn’s Landing board.

Browne warned against choosing one highly regarded design professional, such as a leading architect, as the sole connoisseur on the board. “Such a person might well have to judge plans presented by professional rivals. Academics would not have the same conflict of interest but would have the needed expertise. The new board will need experts. But above all it will need to be a good client of design professionals.”

Contact the reporter at alanjaffe@mac.com

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