How livable communities can be realized in Philadelphia

May 18, 2010

By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly
 
Leading voices from the philanthropic, institutional, development and government sectors offered a chorus on creating sustainable communities Monday night at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
 
The participants in the program, “Livable Communities and Philadelphia,” sponsored by the Academy, PennPraxis, and U.S. Reps. Allyson Y. Schwartz of Philadelphia and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, offered some clear definitions of sustainable living, noted the challenges in attaining the goals, and found that the city is on its way to achieving them.
 
Schwartz serves on Congressional committees with Blumenauer, who she described as a national leader in developing sustainable communities, and they have worked on legislation together. She hoped to return to Washington with ideas from the discussion that could be supported and realized.
 
The Philadelphia region, she said, has great potential and problems, including the need to extend its rail system, a foundation of parks and recreation areas that must be integrated more into their communities, and Main Streets in need of revitalization. “We’re here to see how it all fits together, and how the region can be a leader in transforming into a sustainable community,” Schwartz said.
 
Blumenauer, who is serving his eighth term in Congress, explained that the city of Portland, Ore., had developed a terrific light-rail system. Reaching that level is “a lot easier in an area that is one-third of the metropolitan area of Philadelphia,” he said. Portland doesn’t have the history or problems of Philadelphia either, “but what you do have looms large,” he learned during his 26-hour visit here.
 
Tackling the city’s challenges will require “getting the federal government behaving as a full partner,” he said.

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Panelists in the discussion of “Livable Communities” at the Academy of Natural Sciences tonight were (from left) Shawn McCaney, of the William Penn Foundation; Tony Sorrentino, of the University of Pennsylvania; Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia Acting Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and Director of Commerce; and John Gattuso, of Liberty Property Trust.

Moderator Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, helped define Philadelphia’s challenges. “We are land rich and people poor,” he said. “Blight dominates the city’s post-industrial core. The transit system is divided by race and class, and there is tension between the city and region.”

Turning to the panel, Steinberg asked how Philadelphia and the surrounding counties can move toward a more livable, sustainable future.
 
Representing the city, Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, defined the factors that make a community livable. The creation of the city’s first Comprehensive Plan in 50 years will take those needs into account, he said.
 
Jobs are job one, he said. Being able to work, earn an income and raise a family are the priorities, and they require proximity to “where the economic engines are.” Transit has historically connected people to where they work, but now “employment happens everywhere.”
 
The city also has moved from an industrial economy to a service economy fueled by universities and medical research facilities. “That’s where our economy has gone,” he said.

 
Another measure of livability is “how we lead our lives day in and day out,” Greenberger said. Residents need time to relax and ways to take advantage of all the city offers, including convenient schools, parks and other amenities.
 
The great challenges for Philadelphia are its aging infrastructure, a system of pipes and utilities below ground that are “fantastically expensive to maintain”; an insufficient tax base; and a bad attitude: “We need to see win-win situations out there.”
 
On the positive side, Greenberger said, after three centuries of debate over cities, the current administration in Washington “believes in cities.” The federal government recognizes that American cities have to compete with all the other metropolitan centers in the world, and aid may finally come directly to the urban economies, he said.
 
Other partners are needed, including the private sector, big institutions and foundations, Greenberger said, acknowledging his partners on the panel.
 
Representing Liberty Property Trust was John Gattuso, senior vice president and regional director of urban and national development for the firm responsible for the Comcast Center and the Navy Yard redevelopment.
 
Gattuso defined livable communities as those that are safe for every resident, provide the means for a decent education and quality recreation, offer a quality of life that retains residents and students, and attracts those who do business there. “If you provide those qualities, jobs will follow,” he said.
 
Liberty Property Trust has been committed to sustainability for a decade, Gattuso said, because “to not build a sustainable building is to build an obsolete product.” What makes the firm’s projects “high-performance buildings” is the impact they have on people and how they perform their work inside them. In addition to saving 30 percent in energy costs, LEED-certified buildings increase productivity more than three times the savings in energy, he said.
 
Asked by Steinberg why Liberty Property Trust does not invest in lower economic communities, Gattuso offered some historical perspective. When the company began working in the Navy Yard in the mid 1990s, it was a very questionable investment. The firm has since invested “several hundred millions of dollars to turn the corner,” he said.
 
Other areas of Philadelphia have the potential to make similar progress, but there must be a partnership of private investment with city, state and federal resources, Gattuso said.
 
Tony Sorrentino, of the University of Pennsylvania, provided an example of how a large institution can drive the development of a sustainable community.
 
Penn’s West Philadelphia Initiatives began 15 years ago with a “seismic mind-shift” led by then-university president Judith Rodin, Sorrentino said.
 
The community at that time had high rates of vacancy and violent crime and low levels of literacy and income. “The university was at fault for many of those problems,” he said, and leveraged all its resources to make up for the sins of the past. Driven by the residents and the Spruce Hill Civic Association, the university took on the biggest challenges, including improving public education, easing home ownership, and increasing police presence on the campus. Forgivable loans of $15,000 were offered to university staff who purchased homes in the community, and 596 families took up the offer. Penn became a destination school with a quality of life that attracted academic stars, Sorrentino explained.
 
Providing the perspective of private philanthropy, Shawn McCaney, of the William Penn Foundation, said the organization has an “urban-centric” attitude. “Great regions need a strong urban core.”
 
The foundation also relies on partnerships, mainly with nonprofits, the city and the public sector. It seeks applicants with “strong leadership,” who come to the foundation with a compelling case for support.
 
The federal government, he noted, “shapes our dialogue,” and the foundation works to create an alignment of housing, transit and other factors that make communities more livable.
 
In closing the discussion, Schwartz noted that “good things are happening” in Philadelphia already. What actions will make an impact on the city, and how will residents know it has reached “the tipping point” toward greatness, she asked.
 
Sorrentino said the city must “think comprehensively. It has to work quickly and smartly, and leverage all our resources,” philanthropic, private and public. “Things have happened that have begun the tipping,” he said.
 
“The city has become a huge partner” with the William Penn Foundation, McCaney said. “We see the big picture coming into view.”
 
Gattuso believes Philadelphia is “at the point of inflection.” It has become a “tremendous market” for investment. “Philadelphia is past its crisis, and we should embrace that,” he said.
 
Planning and progress on the waterfronts are “tremendous opportunities for us,” Greenberger said, pointing to work on the Race Street Pier as an example.
 
Philadelphians need an attitude adjustment, he said. Instead of the old expression, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” they need to think: “I’ll see it when I believe it.”
 
Citing the creation of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the train system, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and now the waterfront projects, he said,  “We as Philadelphians have to start believing in what we’ve done, who we are, and who we want to be.”
 
Contact the writer at alanjaffe@mac.com.
 
 
 
 
 

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