Casino Slam Dunk Hits Rim; New Vision of "Rittenhouse Square on the River" Emerges on the Rebound

A funny thing happened on the way to the slam dunk that was supposed to push a massive casino through the city's planning hoop and onto the Delaware River...for, as basketball observers in Philly (and yellowcake plutonium observers everywhere) have learned, a slam dunk is not always a sure thing. So in a move Sixers fans might call a "Dalembert," the casino's slam dunk hit nothing but rim over the last few days, as plans to move the South Philly Foxwoods project forward were first slowed by a surprise tabling by the city's planning commission, and then the whole process of turning the Delaware riverfront into a gambler's paradise hit what may prove to be a totally unanticipated wall: the city-commissioned Penn Praxis waterfront plan was finally unveiled Monday, and it proved to be a a big, bold reimagining of Philly's growing popular, prosperous neighborhoods organically, right down to its historic riverfront, with NO SIGNS OF CASINOS--OR EVEN WAL-MART--visible anywhere.

Hold the phone, stop the presses, call Inga Saffron, and tell the bulldozers they may need to be redeployed elsewhere: Philly's Delaware Riverfront Saga may yet prove to have a third act (and a surprise happy ending)!

Check this out: last Wednesday, Foxwoods' developers were cruising through what they thought would be a routine public hearing at the Main Branch of the Free Library, before--they imagined--the city's (largely mayor-appointed) planning commission would give them quick approval, as they had given SugarHouse a month earlier. Even Foxwoods foe Councilman Frank DiCicco was predicting a rubber stamp. However, the commission unexpectedly elected to table the Foxwoods vote, as opposition proved more persuasive than the Councilman and other experts had expected. The Daily News' Clout recounted the meeting's most surprising episode, when State House aide Mary Isaacson, representing both riverfront reps Mike O'Brien and Bill Keller, got into a stage-side debate with DiCicco aide Brian Abernathy that became so heated the Councilman literally had to physically separate the two. Isaacson then delivered what proved one of the day's most devastating blows against Foxwoods, claiming the casino had failed to gain necessary riparian rights from the State and promising both legislators would vigorously battle them for those rights.

Then came the BIG NEWS, in the form a BIG VISION of the riverfront, one so bold, and coming from a source so closely connected with the casino-friendly Street administration, that anti-casino activists and good urban planning fans are still pinching themselves to make sure they're not dreaming.

Penn Praxis director Harris Steinberg, appointed by the mayor to create a comprehensive plan for the Delaware riverfront, dropped a surprise Jane Jacobs-style bombshell Monday. Here's how's Matt Blanchard descibes it:

The Praxis vision would take the two largest chunks of riverfront land and create two new neighborhoods, one in South Philadelphia and another stretching along Northern Liberties, Fishtown and Port Richmond. The existing landscape of huge sites, such as the waterfront WalMart, would be broken up with a web of new streets. This denser urban fabric could then sprout a cityscape of human-scaled homes, shops and parks, drawing the vitality of Philadelphia’s existing neighborhoods down to the river’s edge. It’s not Miami Beach, but rather Rittenhouse Square, that Praxis envisions on the river.

CHECK OUT THE PLAN YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOU'D SEE! In fact, check out Matt's whole article, as I am hardly doing it justice.

(Since the tale on the river has taken yet another turn, you might as well just bookmark's website, as Matt and friends have been doing a wonderful job of chronicling the hopes and hazards of planning beyond just the casinos, including a much lauded article on the not one, not two, but 22 HIGHRISE CONDOMINIUM PROJECTS now in various stages of development along the Delaware.)

Back here on Earth, the question is whether a good-planning rally is really feasible so late in what has seemed--thus far--to be a casino game.

There are reasons for cautious optimism.

First, obviously, there is Steinberg's amazingly compelling vision of a Philly riverfront that would actually look and feel like Philly, not some out-of-state developer's idea of an ersatz Atlantic City or Miami Beach. While it employs urban lessons learned from as far off as Amsterdam and Madrid, it (finally) considers not just the riverfront neighborhoods' wishes, but their residential successes as well. Steinberg's plan frees residential neighborhoods to grow, organically, right down to the river that had always been their nearby--but distant--neighbor.

A second reason the Penn Praxis plan might earn new support is its likely allies, starting with the building trades unions. Those unions, who have thus far backed the riverfront casino projects, would stand to earn far more work if Steinberg's vision were to become reality, as blocks and blocks of new residential housing would be built along the river, AND--on alternative sites--the two new casinos AND probably--again on alternative and more appropriate non-waterfront sites--new versions of Wal-Mart, Superfresh, Home De(s)pot, and the rest of strip mall stores that would have to make way for the new riverfront neighborhoods.

Unions might be persuaded that the rebuilding of Society Hill and Old City as lowrise but upscale residential neighborhoods in the 1960's and 1970's stands as a successful local precedent for such a project, more persuasive perhaps than just the recent gentrification of Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and South Philly. The earlier project's downside, the displacemnt of older, minority communities--a story well-told in Diane McKinney-Whetstone's Tumbling by the way--would be totally avoided.

An old union bricklayer I used to know, the late John Schailey, my girlfriend from the nineties' grandfather, used to spend hours recounting to me stories from a successful career spent mostly, year after year, building streets and houses in Society Hill and Old City. I can imagine my only male cousin, Vincent Durso, also a union bricklayer, finishing out his career in a similar way, building new residential housing not very few from those older projects.

I can certainly imagine other local building trades craftspeople seeing the awesome benefits of new river blocks.

State government too might be persuaded that the project would be the best bet yet for yielding tax revenues from a waterfront that has laid fallow for almost a half-century. Most importantly (for them), this project would not necessarily imperil their beloved casinos, as it would just necessitate re-siting them. Of course, somebody in government always benefits when big stores like Wal-Mart are convinced to move and rebuild, as well.

Finally, there is the prospect that all this good planning is being pitched just in the nick of time, just when good planning is about to get a real friend in the mayor's office, Michael Nutter. It is hard to look at this bold vision for the riverfront and NOT imagine that it's just the kind of thing that would capture Nutter's fancy. At a planning session earlier in the campaign, Nutter was by far the candidate most excited by the untapped possibilities of a wisely and humanely planned riverfront. Even those who call for more new spending to combat poverty might be attracted to the Penn Praxis plan, with its believable promise of new building and new wage tax and real estate tax revenues.

So, very late in the game, we have a shot at a happy ending on the Delaware. We now know what it might look like: an awesome plan drawn up by no less an authority than the city's first official riverfront planners in modern history.

The question is: Can we pull it off, or will good planning clank off the rim like a Samuel Dalembert slam, or--perhaps more fittingly--like a well-intentioned long shot at the buzzer?

Two concerns

One concern is how the longshoremen's union would respond, though this concern is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the Port is left in tact and encouraged to be an "anchor" institution.

The other is, how do you convince the owners of Ikea, Home Depot, Wal-Mart parcels to evict their tenants, tear down the buildings and divide their parcels? I don't remember what it was like before those stores were there but I'm guessing it was pretty bleak. If you kick them out, somehow acquire all that land and then divide it into smaller parcels with a street grid, how do you guarantee that people will step in and build... short of giving away parcels through some kind of modern-day homestead act?

I think it's fantastic and I really hope it comes to fruition. I'd be one of the first to move in and/or use the parks and pathways.

Where is Tom Knox when we need him?

I'm delighted by Sam's narrative of events but hope that they are an accurate reading. I'm wondering where Tom Knox, the good public servant is. It'd be helpful to have some well-known figures use their bullhorn to support the awesome plan unleased by Penn Praxis. Maybe Michael Nutter could get on board too but sometimes it's useful for an objective outsider to step in and show the way.

I hope they're accurate too!

I literally happened into attending the planning commission meeting at the Library's Main Branch (a place I am fond of hanging around because it's where my parents met); I just asked a bunch of questions of Matt Blanchard and others who attended. Everyone I talked to agreed that the outcome was a surprise, and that there was a tiny glimmer of hope afterward that wasn't there before.

Matt's a friend, and he and I had been having a friendly debate about the types of development that would best benefit the Delaware riverfront. I had been advocating lowrise residential. Matt not only covers the waterfront for, he's also the scribe for Penn Praxis, so when Harris' plans came in, he knew I'd be excited, and he suggested I take a look. That's when I decided to write the post.

The plan is just so beautiful, so obviously Philadelphia (that's Harris Steinberg's specialty I think, knowing what makes Philly Philly), I just wanted to put it out there, let people know that this neighborhood-friendly happy ending has been drawn up by the first official riverfront planner in modern history.

Now we have to find the will and wisdom and money to get there.

Place the casinos elsewhere, re-zone, and--what?--adopt some mixed version of the Land Value Tax to force the property owners' hands? Some of those guys have been holding out since the late Eighties!

I'd love to hear some experts' opinions about how something like the Penn Praxis plan could happen.

"It’s not Miami Beach, but

"It’s not Miami Beach, but rather Rittenhouse Square, that Praxis envisions on the river."

But Miami Beach is pretty human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed use. Has whoever made this comparison ever been there? South Beach is famous for its small Art Deco era hotels and apartments, and it's probably the most small-scaled old urban part of Florida. There's certainly no Wal-Mart there.

I think it's a high-rise vs. low-rise thing

Certainly, if the Philly market for waterfront property could produce and sustain hotels and condominiums like these, you could make an argument for Miami Beach as a model for Delaware Riverfront development.

It's just that, in order for that to happen, Philly would probably need to suddenly experience year-round sunny 85 degree weather and grow a white sandy beach.

Oh yeah, and people would have to want to swim in the Delaware.

We could probably truck in the palm trees.

Short of all that, however, we're left with 23 speculator's drawings of high-rise condo developments (I missed one earlier) that year after year, decade after decade, don't get built because the market couldn't sustain them.

What the Philly market has sustained in general, and what surrounding neighborhoods have recently grown in particular, is lowrise residential with some small human scale commercial. You could throw a ten story building in here or there, but I doubt you could build anything that looked like Miami Beach.

Art Deco is a charming style for sunny places that saw great growth in the 1940's and 1950's, but it probably wouldn't be the most harmonious fit for neighborhoods that bordered the brick townhouses of Pennsport, Queen Village, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Port Richmond.

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