Nutter endorses PennPraxis waterfront plan
By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic
Declaring his full support for PennPraxis' new Delaware waterfront plan, Mayor Nutter pledged yesterday to transform the moribund Penn's Landing Corp. into a more flexible agency that would devote itself to bringing housing, parks and recreation trails to the entire length of Philadelphia's main river.
The agency will be renamed the Delaware Waterfront Corp. to reflect its broader agenda.
Nutter laid out his intentions last night at the Independence Seaport Museum on Penn's Landing during a wide-ranging speech that accompanied the presentation of PennPraxis' 10-point action plan. Nutter also promised to begin work immediately on several other recommendations in the plan, including the construction of a two-mile bike trail in South Philadelphia, a green park on a boat pier at the foot of Race Street, and a highly detailed master plan to chart the waterfront's development over the next decade.
More than 500 people crowded into the museum's auditorium to hear the mayor confirm he would support the waterfront plan, crafted over the last two years with input from hundreds of city residents. Nutter, who praised the participants' "labor of love," told the group he now considers the plan's conclusions the official policy of his administration, directly linked to his economic goals.
"Tonight is our 'carpe diem' moment," he told the crowd. "I embrace your action plan."
It had been expected that Nutter would broadly endorse the goals of PennPraxis' action plan, which lays out a decade-long road map for developing the waterfront. But he surprised the audience by saying that he also intended to enlist the plan in his effort to convince the state to relocate the city's two casinos from their waterfront sites.
Nutter said he would ask PennPraxis, a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and funded by the William Penn Foundation, to conduct a 60-day study to determine whether the existence of those slots parlors would compromise the goals of the waterfront plan.
"We must answer the essential question: Can the casino plans at their proposed locations work or not? An honest, legitimate, third-party analysis must be conducted," argued the mayor, who has been lobbying Harrisburg to consider new sites for the two casinos.
"We will not be forced into decisions today about our waterfront that may harm future generations of that valued place," he added.
PennPraxis' director, Harris Steinberg, who opposes the waterfront sites for the casinos, said the purpose of the 60-day study is to determine whether casino traffic would interfere with the plan to transform Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, served by light rail. The Foxwoods casino has said that it will need to widen the roadway, by colonizing the existing sidewalk space, to handle more car traffic.
Steinberg also is concerned that the casinos' big-box designs violate a basic tenet of the PennPraxis plan, which calls for all new development to conform to the city's grid of blocks and streets. Both casino parlors require huge structures to house the 5,000 slot machines required by the state gaming law, along with sprawling 4,000-car parking garages.
"If we're going to have a walkable, accessible, connected and sustainable riverfront, then we need . . . the streets, sidewalks and public access, to mesh seamlessly with the nearby city neighborhoods," Nutter told the crowd.
Steinberg said he was thrilled by Nutter's enthusiastic response to PennPraxis' report, which was initiated by Mayor John F. Street. "There was no certainty that there would be folks in the new administration who would understand the importance of planning the waterfront. We're extremely lucky," he said.
Nutter's decision to restructure the Penn's Landing Corp. signals a new chapter for Philadelphia's Delaware waterfront.
That agency was founded in 1970, just a few years after the city finished the landfilling effort that created the two-block rectangle of land known today as Penn's Landing. It was expected that the area would develop quickly, since it was located just across Interstate 95 from Society Hill and Center City.
But one project after another failed, and the agency was hit with corruption scandals. Penn's Landing Corp. became little more than an events planner, scheduling concerts and festivals. Its amphitheater and boat basin are now in such bad repair that neither can be used.
The problem, as Nutter observed, was that Penn's Landing Corp. was too limited in its approach to waterfront development. For years, the agency focused exclusively on trying to lure a developer who would transform the waterfront, rather than making the waterfront a place that would be attractive to developers.
Nutter said the new Delaware Waterfront Corp. would first develop parks and other attractions to bring people to the river for leisure activities, then try to market the area to developers. He said the new agency would be in place within 30 days. He also said he would submit an interim zoning plan to City Council in September.
"If we've learned anything, it's that no single mega-project will be a catalyst for renewal. We have to think in terms of small projects," the mayor argued.
It also happens that those small projects are the only ones the city can now afford. Although Nutter pledged to implement a half dozen PennPraxis recommendations, the only specific funding commitment he made was a $250,000 funding match for the recreation trail. That project is being developed by the Center City District, which has already secured the first $250,000.
Andy Altman, the deputy mayor for commerce and planning, said he expected to seek additional project money from outside sources, including the state and federal governments and private foundations.
Nutter said he was unfazed by the financial challenge. "Sometimes, leadership is about supporting individuals or groups who propose bold new ideas," he told the audience. "It's an honor to be here tonight, to support you, to champion your ideas. . . . So . . . let's get it started!"
AN ACTION PLAN FOR THE RIVERFRONT
1. Appoint an open, accountable, effective waterfront manager.
2. Adopt clear zoning, a detailed master plan, and a coordinated regulatory policy.
3. Build a continuous, seven-mile trail along the central Delaware waterfront.
4. Create new parks and improve two existing parks.
5. Guarantee public access to the riverfront and make it easier for residents to walk and bike to the river.
6. Extend transit to the river.
7. Extend key streets to the river.
8. Manage traffic and parking in the central Delaware area.
9. Create a 100-foot greenway along the river's edge.
10. Create a natural river's edge and restore habitat.
-----------------------------------------------------------------Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or email@example.com.