Prioritizing projects for the city’s new master plan

Philadelphians who gathered at Moore College of Art Monday night got to tell city planners how to spend nearly $4 billion over the coming 25 years.

The tricky parts: That’s only half the cost of the 10 master plan priority projects citizens identified in a series of visioning sessions held in May and June, said Alan Urek, the planning commission’s head of strategic  planning and policy. And compared to real-life project funding situations, Urek said, 50 percent is quite generous.

The new master plan will be the first the city’s had since the days of Ed Bacon. A draft will be released by the end of this year, with a final version coming out in March, Urek said. But that’s just the beginning. The city has been broken down into 18 different districts, and as soon as the overall plan is finished, more detailed district plans will be created over the next four to five years. The city is also completing a new zoning code. The new code, combined with the district plans, will yield new zoning maps that show the zoning categories in each neighborhood. 

The 10 priorities include adding rapid transit and extending existing transit lines, focusing new residential development along those lines, creating new neighborhood centers, developing a continuous waterfront trail along the Delaware River and encouraging small-scale farming.

To help determine the most important projects within those guidelines, the Monday night group was divided into multiple tables of six or eight and given a stack of play money. Each project and its cost was listed on one of three maps, representing the three main master plan themes: thrive, connect and renew. Thrive covers things like neighborhood improvements and economic development. Connect included transportation and utility projects. And renew focused on open space, environmental restoration, historic preservation and the public realm.

Each group had to decide where to stack the money on the map. The negotiations got heated at times, but participants seemed to be enjoying the debate.

As her table discussed the renew projects, Washington Square West resident Amanda Mott said she wasn’t ready to spend $37 million to turn the Reading Viaduct into an elevated park. “I would fund none of it,” she said.

“I would fund it 100 percent,” said Stacey Graham, legislative counsel to Councilman-At-Large Bill Green.

Germantown resident Harold Boone agreed with Graham. “It gives the neighborhood an edge – it would basically regenerate it,” he said.

But from Mott’s perspective, an elevated park could prove dangerous, and turning the “quite deteriorated” viaduct into green space made much less sense than spending money to improve and maintain existing green space.

The group also argued about spending $10 million to create better gateways along main corridors where people enter Philadelphia, such as near the airport and on North Broad Street.

Some group members suggested spending part of that sum on the sign near the airport, but saving the rest for other projects. That could pit one neighborhood against another, said South Philadelphia’s Vincent Thompson. “One of the things that’s going to make this plan successful is buy in from all parts of the city,” he said.

Another group discussed transportation and transit connections. The participants agreed money should be spent on transit to better connect the North East to the rest of the city and to run the length of the Central Delaware Waterfront.

Major cities don’t have a  neighborhood that is inaccessible by public transit, said Sam Jimenez of Francisville.

This group was not so interested in improving the I-95 airport exit. “I mean, I feel like I already can get to the airport,” said Rittenhouse Square resident Andrew Dobshinsky.

Each group had 20 minutes to reach consensus on each of the three maps and record their recommendations before moving on to the next map. The debate continued right up to the last minute, when map-switching time was announced.

The information gathered from the four sessions will be consolidated, then posted on the master plan website sometime in November, Urek said. The results will help guide city planners when it’s their turn to prioritize the projects, he said.

The second meeting starts at 6:30 tonight at the Mummers’ Museum, 1100 S. 2nd St. in South Philadelphia. Two more sessions follow in different neighborhoods next month. For more information – and to keep up with Philadelphia2035 developments – see the Philadelphia 2035 Facebook page.

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