We’ve come a long way, Philly

By Harris Steinberg

It can be hard to remember that just 10 years ago, Philadelphia’s planning and development were controlled by backroom deal-makers.

The City Planning Commission was a marginalized shadow of its former self. The public was kept out of discussions about development. Zoning was vexed by an antiquated code and the scourge of councilmanic prerogative. Community groups were on the front lines in battles between neighborhoods and developers.

And the Zoning Board of Adjustment was the arbiter of architectural taste.

Penn’s Landing was a poster child for the perils of development by fiat. Long viewed as the key to revitalization of the Delaware River waterfront, the area saw a series of bloated development proposals that sank under their own weight. A city councilman and a Penn’s Landing Corp. board member were convicted of extortion linked to riverside development. And the pylons of the ill-fated tram to nowhere still mark the terminus of one failed waterfront project.

Today, however, the city’s master plan for the waterfront has received national awards. Philadelphia is seen as a model in planning circles, and progressive ideas are shaping its development policy.

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