By Thomas J. Walsh
“When I saw this I almost fell out of my chair.”
It was Alan Greenberger who said that – the executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission – on Wednesday evening at the Academy of Natural Sciences, as he showed an audience a color-coded map of the city of Philadelphia.
A quick read of the urban CAT-scan looked like one of those ghastly X-rays that Dr. House so cavalierly tosses up onto a lightboard for his hapless interns to gaze at with furrowed brows, trying to identify the mysterious disease that has taken over their patient’s nervous system.
In this case, it was conveniently labeled. The sickly gray areas were “industrial” (it shows up as white in the accompanying photo, shot on a Flip video camera), while the healthier internal organs – commercial and multifamily – are indicated by reds. Some of the yellow areas, single-family residential and residential/commercial, are jaundiced, some not.
But that gray/white area, boy. It could kill ya if you don’t catch it in time.
Seeing the 9,000 acres of industrial land in such vivid relief, said to be equivalent in size to Fairmount Park (though looking much bigger when contrasted to the green-coded areas) was a little unsettling, even for people familiar with the dearth of riverfront available to Philadelphians. It seemed like it made the Academy auditorium a little quiet, too.
It was Greenberger’s only slide for his brief presentation, coming after three nationally renowned leaders on city design had spoken. It was all that was needed for a topic entitled, “How can the federal government support cities?” – the kick-off to discussions at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a national coalition of government officials, academics and business leaders being held here in Philadelphia through Saturday. Sponsors include the National Endowment for the Arts, PennDesign, the American Architecture Foundation and the United States Conference on Mayors.
Moderating was Susan Wachter, professor of real estate at the Wharton School and co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, with panelists Maurice Cox, former mayor of Chartlottesville, Va., and director of design at the NEA; Dan Pitera, urban designer and director for the Detroit Collaborative Design Center; and Larry Scarpa, architect and principle of Pugh/Scarpa in Los Angeles.
Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of PennDesign at the University of Pennsylvania, opened the evening after a welcome from the Academy’s Roland Wall.
“I am very glad that MICD has come to Philadelphia to continue its important work,” said Taylor. “We are at a crisis in the economy and in the world economy,” yet at the same time “we are at an incredible opportunity. We have a chance – probably a once in my lifetime chance, to make a truly transformative change.”
Taylor stressed the legacy of public projects, that “too many times design is considered a luxury,” when in fact it is a “very important tool, a very important problem-solving method” and an elegant way to plan for the next economy. She announced her intention to help that along through a series of PennDesign events in the near future.
Along with what Wachter called “a great opportunity for the federal government to make a difference,” the main point of the conference was to pledge Mayor Michael Nutter into the fraternity of design-minded mayors. He’d be the first from Philly, according to MICD’s literature, after more than 20 years in existence. Pittsburgh’s Tom Murphy is on the long alumni list. So are three mayors each from Allentown and Wilkes-Barre. And mayors from Altoona, Bethlehem, Chester – Chester – and Easton, Erie, Lancaster, Reading, Scranton, State College and York.
York beat Philly on this, Guv.
The program may start with the word “Mayor’s,” but reverence for political leaders is not the intent. Cox, for instance, flashed the classic 1975 New York Daily News front page: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” with the key sub-headline for this conversation: “Vows he’ll veto any bail-out.” (Also dig the sub-sub-headline: “Stocks Skid, Dow Down 12.” Bail-outs have come a long way.)
Mayors are capable of rewriting the rules of urban development, Cox said, and in many places, they are very old rules – like zoning codes from the mid-20th century (ahem). “This has to happen in every major American city,” he said. And don’t stop looking for public champions, he added, showing a young Daniel Patrick Moynihan, gracing the cover of Time Magazine, with the quote, “The quality of public design has got to be made a public issue because it is a political fact. It is the bone and muscle of democracy, and it is time those who see this begin insisting on it.”
Greenberger, a highly respected architect who seems to be coming into his own as a public servant, has been noticeably more insistent of late. He’s happy things are proceeding, albeit at a pretty slow pace, at the Navy Yard, at least. Urban Outfitters’ new headquarters is there, finally giving architectural firm Vitetta Group, a pioneer at the post-Navy Navy Yard, some company. There’s even some solid ship repair work being done, and a cruise terminal. He didn’t mention – didn’t seem to have the heart to – that much of the rest of that space, which is as big as Center City, remains empty and desolate, with an underground oil plume here and there. (Don’t ask where exactly, though. The Navy still maintains control of some of it.)
The Navy Yard is at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, and aside from workers long laid-off from the premises, very few Philadelphians have ever laid eyes on it. Greenberger said most cities would kill for 38 miles of riverfront, like Philadelphia has. He said that “the real urban form of Philadelphia” was not its familiar borders, but a box in the middle.
Observe how difficult it must be to live in the former manufacturing lands that bifurcate North Philadelphia, he noted. We all know about the infamous Amtrak corridor that every New Yorker sees enroute to 30th Street Station. But look at the great swaths of South Philly and the Northeast, most of it still fallow, or brownfields.
We live apart from our riverfronts, he said, with an incredulousness that was not quite naïveté, but maybe a little wondrous, mixed with just a bit of the typical PO'd Eagles fan.
Perhaps we were projecting. But even Wachter, who knows a compelling real estate image when she sees one, asked if that foreboding X-ray could be kept on the screen through the rest of the program after Greenberger was finished and the panel assembled on the stage for questions. Like an oncology textbook, the slide’s title was dry and to the point: “Philadelphia land use: The need for a comprehensive plan.”
And the place where our two rivers meet? It’s raw and beat and God knows what is underfoot, but it’s beautiful. Greenberger’s incredulousness is appropriate.
“There’s 50 years of work here,” he said. “It’s much more than we can provide as a city.”