Mayor talks planning with city leaders at the Mayor’s Institute on City Design

Thursday and today, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and about 50 other mayors, as well as design professionals, are in Chicago for the National Mayor’s Summit on City Design, sponsored by the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the American Architectural Foundation. Nutter moderated a Design and Development panel on Thursday that focused on transit-oriented development, downtown development, historic preservation and reuse and waterfronts. Afterward, the mayor talked to PlanPhilly by phone. Here’s what he had to say:

PlanPhilly: What did you tell the other mayors at the conference about what’s happening, design and planning wise, in Philadelphia?

Mayor Michael Nutter: A few of the things I talked about were the new comprehensive city plan and the waterfront plan that are soon to be released, some of the exciting things going on at the waterfront, and with the built environment in Philadelphia, and our sustainability efforts. Planning and design ultimately matter in terms of the quality of life in the city now and in the future. You always have to be looking ahead, not just in 4-year electoral cycles, but 20, 30 years down the road. How can we make it a place where people want to live and raise families, a place where people just want to be. I just bragged a bit about Philadelphia.

PP: Could you talk a bit more specifically about some of the things you mentioned?

MN: We’ve got our Greenworks plan, the complete streets plan that will make our city much more walkable and bike-able. And we’ve got transit-oriented development in the city. And we are looking at, how do we preserve the character of Philadelphia through historic preservation and adaptive reuse. City government is working with an energy services company that is giving recommendations for City Hall, the Municipal Services Building and One Parkway. And we’ve just put new solar panels on the Southeast Water (Pollution Control) Plant.

PP: Do you get the sense that any of our projects had caught their attention before the conference? Which ones?
MN: A lot of folks seem to know about our sustainability efforts through the Greenworks Philadelphia Plan. I get the impression that they got information from us, from our website. Philadelphia is known nationally and internationally on energy efficiency and research. (They know about) the grant at the Navy Yard for energy research.

PP: What did  they ask you about those things?
MN: They wanted to know how they came about, how to get people to buy into them, and if it is hard making these kinds of things happen.

PP: Have you learned anything so far from the other mayors that you want to bring back to Philadelphia?
MN: First, you’re always going to hear something new, and get inspired. Sometimes, it’s a reaffirmation of things you’re already doing. (Chicago) Mayor (Richard M.) Daley has done some amazing things in his over 20-plus years in office. Millennium Park and other great areas that have been revitalized in Chicago are awe-inspiring. He’s big on planting trees, which are good for beautifying the space and creating a tree canopy. They clean the air, and they make it cool, temperature-wise. (A portion of the conference was devoted to honoring Daley’s design legacy.)

PP: Does the success of Millennium Park reaffirm the idea of re-developing Philadelphia’s Central Delaware waterfront?
MN: It’s just an incredible place – to have that amount of land available for re-creating a whole new space. Although we have a pretty long waterfront. In another month or so, Race Street Pier will open. And then the Race Street Connector (an improvement of Race Street from 2nd Street to the pier, designed to make the route more attractive, obvious and pedestrian-friendly). And we have Washington Avenue Green (a park on the upland side of Pier 53). And now we’re starting to look at another pier.

PP: Which pier?
MN: We haven’t announced that yet. Nice try!  We think that by doing these things we are bringing attention to the point that people care about the waterfront, and that we want managed growth on the waterfront.  Having these kinds of amenities should inspire people in the development community to build in targeted, strategic ways.

PP: What are you going to try to accomplish around planning and development in your second term, if you are re-elected?
MN: We’ve started a process where we’ve really emphasized that planning matters, and that when people want to build and grown in Philadelphia, the first place to go is to the planning commission, which reviews projects appropriately and is able to move them along. In my second term, I would be able to implement the zoning code that is being rewritten. We have had meetings and forums on the comprehensive city plan and the waterfront master plan. With a second term, we would be able to capitalize on and use that good work product and get projects implemented.

Lots of energy has gone into planning and creating new zoning for the waterfront. Recently, a check cashing store got ZBA clearance to open on Columbus Boulevard in Pennsport. And across from SugarHouse is a store – which was not open as of earlier this week – that was permitted as a jewelry store with a precious metal license. It’s only signage is Cash for Gold. And inside there is a security window. People in the neighborhoods are feeling like the protections aren’t working. Does this concern you? If so, what can be done? 
MN: I am not familiar with either of those two cases – there are a lot of cases over at the zoning board, and I can’t personally keep track of each one. But having a comprehensive zoning code as opposed to the patchwork we have now will serve us much better. Certainly certain uses are not desirable in certain areas. I am looking forward to more comprehensive zoning – and then the key is to follow it and enforce it.

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