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DVRPC workshops focus on ‘Livable Communities’

March 18, 2010

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

The most frustrating thing about preaching to the choir is knowing that your audience “gets it,” while so many outside the church walls do not.

That exasperation was on display at times Wednesday, even as speakers at a conference held at the Union League extolled, with confidence, the virtues of regionalism, “town center” oriented development, regulating redevelopment, green infrastructure and other topics.

Regional, metropolitan areas like the nine-county area represented by the event’s host, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), ought to be thought of as simply urban, said Ron Sims, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

With the way jobs and infrastructure are contracting and cities are once again becoming dense hubs, policy should be “urban or not,” Sims added. There should be no more “suburban” type half-measure designations.

“Zoning is only as good as the political moment. … I keep saying ‘regional,’” Sims remarked. “I cannot say that enough.”

Sims is the former King County Executive in Washington state (where Seattle is located), an elected position he held from 1996 through 2009. He was nominated for his current job by President Obama.

He was preceded in his comments by Melissa Castro-Marmero, director of outreach for U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.). She spoke in place of her boss Wednesday morning, because Menendez was in Washington for key votes on healthcare and employment bills.

Castro-Marmero talked up the merits of the Livable Communities Act of 2009 (Senate bill 1619), which would establish within HUD an Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities (OSHC). It would also establish in the executive branch an independent Interagency Council on Sustainable Communities and require the OSHC director to establish a program for comprehensive planning grants and sustainability challenge grants.

Though it has been read twice and referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Castro-Marmero was blunt about its prospects, saying it has “only a couple of handfuls of sponsors” and is not likely to pass anytime soon.

Among 20 main points in the bill’s “findings,” it states that as much as 30 percent of current demand for housing in the United States is for homes in dense, walkable, mixed-use communities – but that less than 2 percent of new housing is in that category.

“We believe that this is going to be the most competitive century we’ve ever faced, and there will be no mercy shown,” Sims said. “None. … Remember 1948, ’49, the ’50s and ’60s? What was the one city that everybody [considered] the city of the future? Detroit.

“We can’t be complacent in this century, and that’s why sustainability and livability is basically saying that we’re going to be smarter than ever with the resources that we have.”

Sims and Castro-Marmero were introduced by DVRPC Executive Director Barry Seymour.

Redevelopments: One large, one small, one pending

Patty Elkis, associate director of comprehensive planning for the DVRPC, was the moderator of a panel called “Transformative New Developments,” a break-out workshop just after the morning plenary session.

Joining her as panelists were Dan Rubin of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), Steve Spaeder of BPG Properties, and Will Agate of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC).

Rubin gave a presentation of PREIT’s re-do of the outdated Echelon Mall in Voorhees, the bedroom community near Interstate 295 in Camden County. Though still inclusive of a scaled-down, enclosed mall (“right-sized, renovated and renamed” is the marketing slogan), it is now part of the development known as the Voorhees Town Center. In the works are three other uses – “The Boulevard,”  with new shops and restaurants along an outdoor strip next to the mall, “The Residences” (upscale apartments and condos), and office space that has already attracted several stable anchor tenants. Two municipal offices are taking over space on the second floor of the mall, mixing the use of the facility further and bringing in yet more employees on a daily basis who will use the other amenities.

Agate gave the room a rundown of the success of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, rejuvenated over the past decade. He also encouraged everyone to seek out a tour of the new Tasty Baking plant that has recently opened.

The Navy Yard story is becoming more well-known in development and planning circles, as the number of tenants increase and more public attention is drawn to the redevelopment of the city’s riverfronts. But PIDC folks are still dropping jaws with some of the basic, raw statistics about the former naval base – that, at 1,200 acres, it is slightly larger than Center City (when defined as Spring Garden Street to South Street, river to river). And that the property has seven miles of waterfront.

“Wow,” whispered one attendee, seated behind us, to her colleague in the next chair. “Can that be right?”

(In the video below, panelists field questions during the Q&A portion of the session. Left to right are Elkis (at podium), Rubin, Spaeder and Agate.)

‘Too many barriers’
Rounding out the panel was Spaeder, who has been toiling for years at a labor of love and frustration in his native Newtown Square, in Delaware County. 

“I’ve been at it for seven years now, and I don’t have a lot to show for it,” Spaeder said of the BPG development known as the Ellis Preserve Town Square, located at West Chester Pike and Route 252. Sitting on a genuine historic site with preserved historic stone cottages, the master plan seems to include everything on the checklists of cutting-edge, green projects. A proposed 450,000 square-foot mixed-use community would have upscale retail, restaurants, office space, a residential component, a hotel and a 25-acre community park and other open spaces – all on 210 total acres. There’s even a renovated, modernized office building at the ready: the former Atlantic Richfield Co. building.

The plan is “setting the foundation for what can be a great town center,” Spaeder said. “It can be a major contributor … and an integration of rich history and vision for a sustainable future” within “a walkable community.”

But it has been a very, very tough sell, he said – to local officials, to competitors (who have bogged down the approvals process with multiple appeals) and to residents (who tend to think the choice is between development and no development, he said, rather than good planning versus slap-dash big boxes and more seas of asphalt).

“In this environment, I can’t believe local government isn’t taking advantage of it, but they’re not,” Spaeder said. “The system’s just not set up to let developers who want to do good development execute your smart growth ideas. Unless it has to do with their trash getting picked up, people don’t care. The residents don’t show up.”

Spaeder said that’s despite the fact that most residents now say they want the project. “Smart growth is wonderful. But there are too many barriers, too many obstacles in the way,” he told the room. Euclidean zoning and land use laws are adverse to principles of smart growth, he added, making it a costly and unnecessarily long process.

Despite how it appears here, Spaeder remains bullish on the project and seemed fairly optimistic. His company’s web site says that Ellis Preserve recently was approved by the Newtown Township Board of Supervisors. “We’re gonna grind it out,” he said, but not before adding another cautionary note to the planners, builders and architects in attendance.

“You also need to include strong architectural guidelines and design guidelines,” said Spaeder. “A developer, left to his own devices, will veer off course …”

That earned some more guffaws from the room. “He will! We’re like that!” Spaeder laughed. “And instead of a town center you’ll end up with a big box center with some fancy façade. Too many [so-called] ‘town centers’ in this region – they need a new term. They’re not town centers.”

Luncheon speakers included officials from the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance and the Natural Lands Trust, along with Randall Arendt, author of the recently published “Envisioning Better Communities: Seeing More Options, Making Wiser Choices.”

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

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