When Philadelphia’s manufacturing base abandoned the city shortly after World War II, it left behind a 7-mile stretch of prime waterfront real estate along the bank of the Delaware River. For the next 50 years that land lay fallow, cut off from the rest of the city by I-95, home to crumbling industrial structures, an underused pedestrian area, and two big-box retailers that showed up in the 1990s: Wal Mart and Ikea.
But in recent years the waterfront has been the focus of a flurry of speculative development from which two visions of the area’s future have arisen: In one—the collective scheme of a handful of private developers—the waterfront becomes home to more than 20 highrise condominiums situated on megablocks. In the other—a proposal soon to be finalized by PennPraxis, the non-profit consulting arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of William Penn’s Design—famed street grid extends to the river’s edge, creating the template for a pedestrian-scaled, mixed-use urban environment.
Though inherently at odds, the two visions haven’t squared off for a proper battle for supremacy until now. On November 14, Praxis’s proposal will be displayed to the public at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. If all goes well, its recommendations could be voted into law within the next year. The imminence of this plan has drawn the ire of heavyweight zoning lawyer Michael Sklaroff and former city planning commissioner Craig Schelter, who now represents the waterfront developers.
Both Sklaroff and Schelter have blasted Praxis for not taking the developers’ input into consideration. But this complaint is an empty one, said Praxis director Harris Steinberg, who added that the entire process has been open to the public. “The development community could have put in their two cents at any time,” he explained.
Initiated on October 12, 2006, in an executive order by Mayor John F. Street, the Central Delaware Riverfront Planning Process materialized from a measure put forth by city councilman Frank DiCicco. The move was a response to public outcry over two casinos that the state legislature had allowed on the riverfront in a piece of midnight rulemaking.
Steinberg and Praxis agreed to take on the project under one condition: that the process be completely transparent and open to community involvement. Working with design firm Wallace, Roberts, and Todd and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, as well as a handful of other consultants, Praxis attracted more than 4,000 Philadelphia residents to 13 public events. The plan that has emerged from that yearlong process reportedly draws on the city’s powers to impose civic guidelines on developers. For example, the city has the power to plat streets, or force developers to adhere to the master plan’s grid when developing their properties.
The biggest impediment to the Praxis plan at this point is Sklaroff, who, according to Steinberg, has the ear of the governor, operates via backroom deals, and could influence the new mayor (the office is up for reelection). On the other hand, considering the nation’s softening real estate market, the riverfront could lay fallow for another 50 years.