I’d assume most of us don’t spend a lot of time down by the city’s beautiful Delaware River waterfront, mostly because we don’t have a beautiful waterfront. Philadelphia has a seven-mile central waterfront that is notable for nothing.
Thankfully, in a rare moment of foresight, city Councilman Frank DiCicco commissioned the University of Pennsylvania design team PennPraxis to create a unified plan for future development with the input of the communities that surround the Delaware.
A VISION OF PROGRESS
The PennPraxis study is now completed and will be presented to the public at the Convention Center Nov. 14. It is a progressive and ambitious plan that envisions a fully urban neighborhood on the central waterfront, with parks, trails, commercial areas and dense housing, all built on a street grid extending past Delaware Avenue. Recognizing the political fury surrounding the proposed casino development and wishing to stay neutral, PennPraxis actually came up with two complete proposals, one with casinos and one without.
It is, on paper, a good plan.
But, since this is Philadelphia, this vision is already under fire. A group of developers has already begun protesting. They fear that practical implementation of the Praxis plan would force them to conform to a type of development that was not maximally profitable or possibly subdivide their large parcels into lots too small to accommodate the ever vogue condo towers we’ve seen of late.
Not all are opposed to the plan, though. Some envisioned a Rittenhouse on the River.
“I think it does give you more value,” said Danial Gans of the Hoboken Brownstone Company. “I’m an urbanite, so I really believe [the waterfront] has to have that urban feeling, it has to be attached to the community.”
However, a group of developers was outraged enough to preemptively lobby the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to scuttle the plan. Fears of an actual progressive plan for our city’s waterfront cannot be allowed to stop this chance for real growth.
AN OLD PERSPECTIVE
The biggest problem the antagonistic developers have with the plan is that it centers around creating a neighborhood with typically “urban” characteristics: dense housing, a mixture of residential and commercial areas and a lack of reliance on cars.
This style of development was considered by developers for most of the second half of the 20th century to be a loser – people were moving to the suburbs for bigger lawns and a car-centric lifestyle while dense cities were being abandoned. It became very common for new development in cities after World War II to try to imitate suburban areas. Just look at Northeast Philadelphia as an example.
However, viewing traditionally urban development as a pariah is a notion that needs to be thrown out with a lot of other presumptions from the last century. People dissatisfied with suburban living are moving back to the city, and are doing so because they want to live in a city, not some bastardized version of the suburbs.
CHANCE FOR CHANGE
It is difficult to tell at this point how this saga will unfold. Hopefully, the cadre of development interests trying to hobble this plan will see the light and realize the long-term value of creating neighborhoods with character.
It is not economic suicide. It is recognizing a changing demographic of homebuyers that wants to live differently. Developers must embrace the future trends of urban life or doom Philadelphia’s waterfront to mediocrity, a fate that is worse than simply being undeveloped.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at email@example.com.