PHILADELPHIA (AP) To understand the historical ideals of the City of Brotherly Love, visitors go to the Liberty Bell. For a dose of pop culture, they head to the “Rocky” steps. For a picture of how development works, they could check out Sansom Street in Center City.
The narrow road between the Chestnut and Walnut street commercial districts has been the scene of conflict in recent years over competing urban needs – housing, parking and historic preservation.
The fates of three projects were sealed in legal battles. Buildings tumbled on the 1600 block of Sansom to make way for a proposed seven-story parking garage with shops and restaurants on the first floor, and “French Quarter” townhouses gave way on the 1800 block to a planned 33-story condominium tower. But a court decision stopped the Philadelphia Parking Authority from creating even more parking by demolishing historic buildings on the 1900 block.
Like other development taking place during the city’s current building boom, the flurry of activity has come in the absence of a clear plan, jeopardizing the small-scale, more intimate character of streets like Sansom, critics charge.
Philadelphia does have a development plan for Center City, but it was crafted in 1988, before a wave of new projects – and critics say it is largely ignored.
The city Planning Commission’s executive director, Thomas A. Chapman, said it’s impossible to anticipate everything that is going to happen in a 20-year period, and acknowledged that the commission makes many planning decisions on a building-by-building basis.
But he said the city “always looks at design, economic impact and how a building fits into the area.”
Architect David S. Traub, a member of Save Our Sites, a historic preservation group that blocked the Parking Authority proposal for the 1900 block of Sansom, said the Center City plan has been “put on the shelves and disregarded.”
William Becker, chair of the Design Advocacy Group, a nonprofit organization that monitors design and development in Philadelphia, also is sharply critical of the city’s planning process, which he said is further stymied by complex zoning regulations.
“While aspiring to be a world-class city,” he said, “we don’t act like a world-class city when we deal with development decisions on an ad-hoc basis.”
Traub, a 40-year resident of Philadelphia, said narrow streets like Sansom are critical to the city’s character.
“The quick rhythm and intimate scale of the boutiques and facades capture the fine texture of urban life,” he said. “If we redevelop those away, we’ll lose the very characteristics people move to the city for.”
The city’s laissez-faire approach to planning dates to the lean times of the 1980s, when Becker said “there was a real concern that the city would fail economically.”
“The thought was, any investment should be greeted with open arms, and planning was seen as something that would potentially get in the way,” Becker said.
Nearing the end of a 10-year property tax abatement designed to encourage construction, Philadelphia is at a critical juncture. Center City alone added 212 new businesses and 1,966 residential units in 2005, according to the nonprofit Central Philadelphia Development Corp.
“Tower after tower is going up downtown,” said Jeffrey Featherstone, chair of Temple University’s Department of Community and Regional Planning. “People believe there’s money to be made here and they’re spending it.”
Chapman said he does not know whether Philadelphia will draft an updated plan for Center City, but a community group’s work might help. Taking it upon themselves to come up with a concept for their neighborhood, the Center City Residents’ Association hopes to complete its own Center City plan this summer.
The plan will promote quality design, preservation of community character, efficient transportation and open space.
But government also must play a major role, Becker said, because large-scale projects like parks, transportation and riverfront development require city input.
His group has released its own recommendations ahead of the 2007 mayoral elections. “We’d love to have all the mayoral candidates be aware of our reform agenda and offer competing ideas of how they would implement the plan,” he said.
Developers also are frustrated.
On the east side of Rittenhouse Square, long the center of Philadelphia social life, Scannapieco Development Corp. plans to build a condominium tower for wealthy empty nesters. Each condo in the new 1707 Rittenhouse Square Street tower will occupy an entire floor, except the penthouse, which gets two.
Developer Tom Scannapieco said getting the project approved has been an arduous process. A zoning variance was required, and the location had to be adjusted after negotiations with neighborhood residents, who feared it would obstruct views from existing apartments.
A comprehensive city plan that gives context to these smaller decisions could prevent a lot of problems, he said.
“Philadelphia has a great opportunity for development right now, and it has got to take advantage of that,” Scannapieco said. “It needs a plan that understands what developers understand about market, location and opportunities.”
Until a better plan is created, activists like Traub plan to keep fighting their battles one building at a time.
“George Washington doesn’t have to have slept in a building to give it value – old buildings just add to the romance of the city,” he said. “Cities need romance.”