Harvard panel on Philadelphia sparks thoughts on the dilapidated built environment

By Emaleigh | Last week, I ended a job, got a new one and went to Cambridge on the fly to attend The Philadelphia Story: Planning. Politics. Reality, a panel at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Everything aligns in a Philadelphia story, right? The event was organized by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron, who is on a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, and fellow Loeb Anne-Marie Lubenau, who has worked to transform Pittsburgh – PA’s second largest city – through design of the built environment.

Speakers included Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter; Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development; Harris Steinberg, Director, PennPraxis; and Glen Abrams, Manager of Policy and Strategic Initiatives, Office of Watersheds. One might expect to find this group at City Hall, but here they all were in Massachusetts.

The Philadelphia Story - photo via Changing Skyline

The Philadelphia Story was a walk through the city’s planning past to today’s scene. The audience heard about Greenworks Philadelphia, stormwater infrastructure initiatives and the innovative “Green City, Clean Waters” control plan, the Master Plan for the Central Delaware and the unfortunate expansion of the Sugar House Casino, the challenges of I-95, limitations of the city’s former transactional political system, the need to institutionalize programs and create systems beyond the 4-year plan, and then some. Head over to Inga Saffron’s blog or check out Ashley Hahn’s story on PlanPhilly for detailed accounts of the panel. For more about how the event influenced my own thinking, stay right here.

Part I: Planning and the Dilapidated Built Environment

The path of the conversation at Harvard pushed me to consider planning that effects Philadelphia’s struggling neighborhoods. My perspective is weighted by my experience in Germantown these past few years and the concentrated neighborhood improvement and stabilization efforts that my sister and I are spearheading on W Rockland Street.

I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the dilapidated built environment. Philadelphia is lined with aging houses in declining conditions. Given the number of Philadelphians living in poverty and the high rate of joblessness, among other factors, home repairs won’t make the priorities list any time soon.

When I pass through parts of Southwest Germantown in particular, I picture the scene 10-20 years ahead, looking beyond abandoned properties and at the conditions of occupied houses. I see my own block.

There is a tremendous need for home repair and improvement assistance programs. It feels like a crisis to me, one that without strategic, widespread action will damn neighborhoods in limbo, threatening the growth of the city.

Who is planning for Philadelphia’s neighborhoods that are literally falling apart, where residents struggle to maintain century year-old houses (like those on W Rockland Street), where gap-toothed blocks of row homes are dotted with vacant lots?

At Harvard, Mayor Nutter remarked, “Changing systems is one thing, changing culture is another.” My connecting point here is that there is a need for a system that is scaled for Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, like Germantown, which is focused exactly on that – changing culture in struggling neighborhoods, not through social services, but through planning and design and urban interventions that in turn build community, engage residents and set a new tone.

There is a big need for visible small to mid-range improvement projects that work to stabilize districts, projects that citizens come to value and can’t see living without, like parks and gardens, plazas and streetscape improvements, mixed-use development that includes housing and retail that elevates community (and fits in an urban neighborhood).

What happens when people experience the quality of life benefits from having ‘something better’ even if that something is small in relation to the big picture of planning for a city?

The PhillyRising collaborative, a program spearheaded by the Mayor’s Managing Director’s Office, is a move in the right direction, bridging the gap between neighborhoods and local government, working to sustain pockets of the city in distress. PhillyRising takes a holistic approach to identifying neighborhood pressure points, while analyzing the needs of the community. I wonder how home maintenance fits into the program. (Ainé has attended PhillyRising events.)

What’s also needed are programs like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s vacant lot project – the findings of which are reason enough to fight for funding to relaunch the project. I think often of an article that I read over a year ago about a tapped-out Detroit and the residents who worked to maintain vacant lots and care for parks. Philadelphia has that spirit, though it doesn’t always feel like it on the ground in my neighborhood.

So how can we become even more of a do-it-yourself city? My sister and I are constantly thinking about small urban interventions that can be replicated. We don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. Experiment. See what works, what doesn’t and why. Make a model. Create a blueprint. Share a how-to manual.

At the same time, Germantown is seeing a boost. Residents are growing more vocal and regrouping. New organizations are springing up and talking with one another. There is development at play and the beginning stages of more serious planning too.

The Green2015 plan to transform vacant or underused land into neighborhood parks and the innovative “Green City, Clean Waters” control plan, both of which were discussed at the panel, are city-wide and reach into neighborhoods across Philadelphia including Germantown.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission recently held a meeting to develop a Chelten Avenue Corridor Plan, and I saw first-hand how the awareness generated by the rain garden project in Vernon Park, one of the Water Department’s watershed projects, influenced the conversation among community members as they discussed streetscape improvements. At my table, residents couldn’t pick just one word to describe their vision for Germantown – SUSTAINABLE and HISTORIC topped the list. The meeting was a refresh to attend after reading the recent New York Times feature on the commercial corridor and shrinking middle class.

There’s also the Germantown and Nicetown Transit-Oriented Plan which was completed a while ago and looks lovely on paper. Funding has been secured and construction is slated to start at SEPTA’s Wayne Junction train station very soon – first makeover in 110 years, originally designed by Frank Furness, who knew! The largely vacant Germantown Settlement properties, just across from the top of W Rockland St on Germantown Avenue are seeing some interest (Hidden City Daily has the history). The Queen Lane housing projects will come down too, and nearby, a big box strip and mixed-use development is growing at the old Tastykake brownfield.

These are all major developments, hopefully for the better (but perhaps not the best in every case), and there are more, I’m sure.

All this is to say, Germantown is certainly one to watch, but let’s not forget about what is already here in the mix. Are we going to let homes crumble en masse and run down neighborhoods? Or are we going to create viable solutions?

Part II: Spot Zoning. It actually does matter who you know.

I can’t write about this panel without harping on one thing. When talking about development projects, Mayor Nutter said, “It’s not about who you know any more.” I sat in the audience thinking only about what I knew was happening at City Council that week. Saying it no longer matters who you know rings false the more one reads about the late-hour zoning bills being pushed through Council. Just a few stories:

Councilwoman’s move would fast-track Chelten Plaza plan
City Council amends Germantown overlay ahead of zoning reform
King of the Hill: Neighbors take on a local power player over a six-story development in Chestnut Hill
Who needs a zoning board?

Regardless of opinion over these projects, tell me this – why are bills permitting such zoning adjustments and developments being decided in council, circumventing process? The system may be broken, but while we all wait patiently for the new zoning rule book, a system does in fact exist and it includes a few more informed parties including the Zoning Code Commission and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and recommendations from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to start.

Philadelphia may be far from it’s planning past rife with “little ‘c’ corruption” but then what do you call this?

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