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Planning’s man for all seasons

When Gary Jastrzab was growing up in a Buffalo suburb, Philadelphia was the place where he and his cousin, Kurt, went for adventure.

The Jastrzabs would visit their relatives in Cherry Hill every summer, and the boys would take a PATCO train to meet Kurt’s dad, who worked for Gulf Oil in the Gimbels Building, for lunch. They bought Hardy Boys mysteries at Leary’s used book store. “The Liberty Bell was in the center of Independence Hall then, and you could touch it,” Jastrzab, the newly appointed executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, remembers.

A quiet moment of wonder stands out in Jastrzab’s mind as plainly as the train rides and that early taste of his own independence: “I still have this clear memory of looking from the South Side of City Hall toward the old Wanamaker’s building and thinking, ‘How can a road just end like that, end in a building?’ ” Jastrzab said in a recent interview at planning commission headquarters.

Jastrzab, now 55, pondered the workings of Penn Square sometime in the mid 1960s. About fifteen years later in 1980, with a masters degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania nearly completed, Jastrzab went to work for the Planning Commission, and never left.

“For me, it’s always been the perfect job,” he said. “In grad school, I always wanted to work in local government, in a big city, and I was happy to land here, in Philadelphia.”

Jastrzab still has a sense of wonder over the Wanamaker building. “It’s wonderful … that it was restored, and has new use as a department store at a time when there is a general decline of department stores in the center of cities,” he said.

PlanPhilly spent an hour and a half with Jastrzab, talking about his new job and some of what he has witnessed in his years as a Philadelphia planner. Much of that conversation follows. Direct quotes are used whenever possible. Paraphrases within quotes are in parenthesis, and larger sections that are paraphrased or where explanations of items discussed are given appear in italics.

Gary J. Jastrzab

Title: Philadelphia City Planning Commission executive director
Age: 55
Hometown: Tonawanda, New York (near Buffalo)
Family: Married to Wendy; two daughters, Amy and Tracy, both in their 20s. 
Pets: One dog, three cats.
Neighborhood: University City’s Spruce Hill
Education: Bachelor of Arts, with a double major in environmental design and sociology from the State University of New York at Buffalo, 1976. Master of City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.
Joined the Planning Commission: In 1980.
What he does when not planning: Runs, cycles, competes in duathlons doing both (although on a temporary hiatus due to injury), reads about history, plays correspondence chess.

PP: When did you come to the Planning Commission, and what was your first job?

I was recruited out of grad school. At first, I was a consultant. I was hired to do a study on condo conversions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a wave of condo conversions across the country. Chicago was the big place where it was really started, but then it reached here. Luxury apartments, such as Society Hill Towers, The Dorchester and the Philadelphian, were purchased by big developers to be converted into condos. Philadelphia City Council passed a moratorium on conversions. I did a survey of all developments, including where they were, and how many units there were.

Why was it a problem that apartments were being converted into condominiums?

The problem was displacement of existing tenants – elderly tenants, usually. They were going to live the rest of their lives where they were, and suddenly it was ‘Buy the unit or get out.’

Jastrzab did his research on how large the impacts would be and how the conversion should be regulated, and how the rights and needs of the tenants and those of the property owners could be balanced. Jastrzab was soon hired as a staff planner, in housing and community development. He worked his way up through the ranks and was named deputy director “on or around 2006 or 2007” by then acting executive director Tom Chapman.

In his tenure, Jastrzab has served under five mayors – Bill Green, Wilson Goode, Ed Rendell, John Street, Michael Nutter – and eight PCPC executive directors or acting executive directors. This doesn’t include Jastrzab himself, who served as acting director for about 10 months between the departure of Janice Woodcock and the appointment of Alan Greenberger, who stepped down recently to focus on being the deputy mayor who oversees planning and commerce.

“I’m one of a handful of people who represent the institutional memory here. Some people have been here longer, but not many,” Jastrzab said. Anticipating the next question, he said he’s stuck around because it’s always been his dream to work as a city planner, and he’s loved Philadelphia since boyhood, so there was never a need to consider another city.

PP: With all of those people you’ve worked under, are you going to apply anything that any one of them taught you to your own running of the department?

GJ: “They have all contributed in one way or another to my professional growth.”

Jastrzab said that at the beginning of his career, he was too far down in the organizational chart to have many direct dealings with the executive director. And some of the directors and acting directors weren’t around very long. The person who likely influenced him the most also held the job the longest, he said.

GJ: “Barbara Kaplan taught me a lot. She just had a very down-to-earth style of dealing with people and presenting information. Barbara and another perseon – Sandy Garz, who was the head of housing and urban development and went on to lead the Philadelphia chapter of AIA – functioned as my mentors. She worked very well with community groups and was very highly regarded. She was not seen as distant or unapproachable. She was supportive of people, and of treating people as equals.

When Jastrzab first became acting executive director, between Woodcock and Greenberger, Kaplan called him to tell him to be rigorous in his work, and voice her confidence in his ability to handle the top job, he said. 

PP: Was it hard to go back to being deputy after serving as acting executive director?

GJ: It wasn’t at all. I had worked with Alan Greenberger when he was appointed to the Planning Commission. I knew him in his architectural work before he was on the commission. Alan is a great guy. He’s very open, and he’s an out-of-the-box thinker. He has a good manner of dealing with people, and so much of planning is teamwork – you have to work with other agencies.

PP: What is like to be executive director right now?

GJ: It’s a truly amazing time. The mayor is very supportive of planning, and he has developed a management structure that is different from past mayors – the deputy mayor system – which has resulted in more communication between departments. In any large organization, there can be a silo mentality, and it’s a constant effort to break down those silos. That’s a lot easier under the deputy mayors. Most of the cities development organizations are under Alan (Greenberger) for example.

Greenberger either oversees or sits on the boards of all the city’s departments and semi-governmental bodies that deal with development, Jastrzab noted. These include commerce, L&I, Planning, the PIDC, Housing and community Development and the Redevelopment authority. Getting all of those agencies to regularly talk to each other has lead to a much more comprehensive view, he said.

GJ: Then there’s the comprehensive plan, we will have one for the first time in 50 years. And also we are rewriting the zoning code, attempting to modernize the codes of the city. It’s an important planning tool, and the comprehensive plan and the new zoning code will work hand in hand. It really is an amazing time, and kind of a career capper in a sense. Anybody who is a planner would kind of have to wish for all the planets to align like this, and to have the opportunity to set the stage for what the city could become.

PP: Is there a part of the city where you want to focus special attention, or where you think special attention is needed?

GJ: Those parts of the city that are most susceptible to change, where major transformation can occur. The Delaware Riverfront is one major one. As is knitting together the western part of Center City, 30th Street Station and University City. Another major area that we are talking about doing a more intensive study for is the Callowhill/Chinatown North area. This is the area where there are a lot of loft buildings, and the Reading Viaduct runs up the middle – that could become a major recreational amenity. Then there is the whole Navy Yard and the lower Schuylkill. The Navy Yard is halfway between the airport and Center City, and there are 1,200 acres of potential development there – that competes with any suburban office parks. (South of the University of Pennsylvania) there are a lot of refineries and former refineries, and that could be something truly amazing, with research and development parks.

PP: Are there any places in the city where you think planners really got it right?

GJ: A lot of development has occurred along our two major education institutions – Penn and Temple. Those areas have really transformed in the past number of years. It was led by the institutions, but the city also participated. Around Penn – Penn and Drexel – there is a lot more retail around, and that continues. Temple has also had that kind of growth. (Temple has also switched from being a commuter school to one in which a good number of students live on campus). There are always town and gown issues – you find that around every university – but the growth has largely been a very good thing.

PP: Where did planners miss the mark?

GJ: With I-95. The city was engaged in the planning for that highway. My recollection is that originally I-95 was proposed to be where I-295 is in New Jersey, and not necessarily pass through the center part of the city. But in the late ’50s, early ’60s, local, state and federal planners decided to move I-95 to access industry around the river. I don’t think they intended to cut the city off from the river – that was a byproduct. Economic development (is what the decision was about.)

PP: So what should be done to fix the I-95 problem now?

GJ: I-95 needs to be capped more continuously to provide access to the riverfront. Removing it or burying it are not realistic options. Capping it is expensive enough. But our options increase by looking at covering it over where appropriate.

PP: How has the Planning Commission’s relationship with City Council changed over the years?

GJ: I think council has always been pretty supportive of what we do. We provide services to city council that include mapping, and displaying information geographically. We are by city charter mandated to comment on land acquisition, capital budget items and zoning issues. We tend to look at the recommendations we make from a professional planning perspective – we are pretty forthright in our recommendations. If we think it’s a good idea, we recommend accordingly. If we think it’s a bad idea, we don’t pull any punches.

PP: Does city council usually take the commission’s recommendations?

GJ: For the most part they do.

PP: City Council gave the Planning Commission more power with the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay. Is that indicative that the commission will continue to have greater power into the future?

GJ: We are still an agency that makes recommendations. The Central Delaware Riverfront Zoning Overlay is an area where council granted the city planning commission (the power to) make plan of development decisions without having to go back to city council. The overlay is a stop-gap, do-no-harm measure while the Central Delaware Master Plan is developed.

Jastrzab noted that the Planning Commission developed a set of regulations regarding the plans of development for those who want to build projects in the Central Delaware overlay area – from the river to I-95, between Allegheny and Oregon Avenues – must submit. The overlay legislation required they do this. The regulations “balance the needs of the communities and the greater public and the land owners in a way that is open and available for all to comment on before a decision is made” he said. Under the overlay, the final approval of a project now lies with the planning commission. Critics have said this oversteps the commission’s bounds, and they should continue to instead make recommendations to city council, which should have the final say.

PP: So, when the Master Plan for the Central Delaware and the associated zoning is done, will the Planning Commission continue to have the final say on project approval in the Central Delaware?

GJ: We don’t know yet.

PP: Is there a particular project that you really want to do during your time as executive director?

GJ: Doing a comprehensive plan. We’ve been talking about that at the staff level for a number of years. Mayor Nutter is supportive of it.

The comprehensive plan, often called Philadelphia2035, is now under construction. The city has held a series of public workshops to learn what city residents think Philadelphia should be like, and what various neighborhoods should include, in the future. The city’s last comprehensive plan was done in 1960.

GJ: We’ve attempted to make it a continuing process this time. We are now doing the city-wide plan, then we will do 18 district plans (which take a more detailed look at the city, divided into 18 areas). That will take about five years. Then, at the end of that, we will revisit the city wide comprehensive plan, armed with new data, new economic circumstances and new development potential.

Once the city-wide plan is updated, the district plans will be reviewed and updated, based on changing circumstances, and the process will repeat in a continuing cycle so that the plan never becomes out-of-date, Jastrzab said. This is a good thing, because issues and circumstances are always changing, he said. For example, he said, AmTrak just announced a budget of more than $100 billion to create a world class high speed rail system in the North East.

GJ: It would run between Washington and Boston, at least, and we are right in the middle of that corridor. Imagine 38 or 40 minute services to New York, or one hour and 10 minute service to Washington. That would be a huge benefit to us. Remember before we were talking about connecting the University City and Center City area? This would pass right through that. This is major.

PP: How will regular Philadelphians benefit from having a new comprehensive plan?

GJ: A city wide comprehensive plan will provide a framework for development in the city, and specific ideas that people can get excited about, and a new vision of what the city could become. A lot of it is about connecting places – the places where people live with the places they work – by building upon our existing infrastructure.

Jastrzab went on to talk about some of the ideas that were discussed at the Philadelphia2035 public workshops, and some ideas that planners already have.

GJ: Philadelphia and the region already have a great transit system. There are some really good bones around the city that we can develop, including a segment to the far North East. This would probably be rail transit, up the Boulevard and perhaps into Lower Bucks County. This would connect work place nodes in the North East with other neighborhoods in the city. In general, the goal is to assemble transit that would make connections faster and easier.

Jastrzab said he would like to see Center City’s office tower district expanded west along Market Street. And he’d like to see the underground transit concourse extended right along with it.

GJ: What would be a big help with that is a new Market West subway station, somewhere between 20th and 22nd … it would increase the value of the land and make development of offices (more do-able).

The reason that there are so many subway stops going east along Market Street, and so few going west, is that when the subway was being built, steam trains came through the area and dropped passengers off at what was then the Broad Street Station. The tracks were supported by a massive stone structure called “The Chinese Wall.” Further west along Market Street, the area was industrial, Jastrzab said, and provided no reason for passengers to even want to get off the train, anyway. The “Chinese Wall” and train station were razed in the 1950s.

GJ: I would love to see the underground concourse developed more completely and extended. We are considering in the new zoning code incentives to make that happen. Developers would get more density on their site if they are planning for a transit amenity.

PlanPhilly asked if there aren’t there office buildings that have connections to the existing concourse, which they have closed off. Jastrzab said there are, and reopening them is something that the city should encourage, but it would have to be “bully-pulpit” encouragement, versus zoning code encouragement, since these developments already exist. He hopes that developers of new buildings would see the tie-in as an amenity, and that the popularity of that amenity would also encourage existing businesses with abandoned concourse access to think about reopening the connection.

PP: Do you have a favorite place in Philadelphia?

GJ: I have a lot of favorite places. But certainly, Center City, as a whole. There is no place in the region I ‘d rather work than in the downtown. There is so much variety! All these many years later, I can look up and discover something new. They take a building down, and there is a whole new vista.

PP: Can you give me an example of that?

GJ: The second stories on Chestnut Street. When they took down the Meridian, where the fire was, the second stories became visible. You could walk along 15th and you could see the tops of buildings from the 1800s through the 1890s on Chestnut Street. Retail converted the ground floors of these buildings to more modern styles in the 1950s and 1960s, Jastrzab noted, but above that, the ornamental architecture is preserved.

GJ: It’s wonderful that there is so much history here, so much variety of different kinds of buildings from different eras. It gives a sense of the continuum of history. I still get goosebumps every time I walk into Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell pavilion. It’s incredible what that bell means. Jastrzab said he is very interested in the Civil War Era and President Abraham Lincoln.

PP: In addition to pursuing your interests in Lincoln and the Civil War, what are your other hobbies?

GJ: I like to participate in multi-sport activities, particularly running and cycling. I do duathlons, which are kind of like triathlons, without the swimming part. I read history, and I play a lot of chess, by email or postal mail. It’s called correspondence chess.

PP: Correspondence chess?

GJ: It’s sponsored by one of the chess organizations, such as the U.S. Chess Federation. (He’s a member). The federation matches you with an opponent. You send a postcard with your move, and they send one back with theirs. Games can take a year or longer. Jastrzab also plays the modern versions with email or the I-Phone app, both of which go much faster.

GJ: I’ve played people who were incarcerated, and people in Brazil, France, England and Slovakia.

PP: What’s the longest game you’ve ever played? And are you any good?

GJ: About one and a half years. I win more than I lose, but I am by no means a chess master.

PP: What about the duathlons?

GJ: I’ve been pretty successful in those. You compete in age categories – about 5 to 10 year age categories – and I’ve routinely finished in the top 3 in my age group. But I have not competed this past summer, due to a hip injury.

PP: From running?

GJ: From general overuse. I still spin regularly, and do cycling. But I have not been running in awhile. I hope to get back to it.

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