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Developers Fight Plan to Extend Streets to Riverfront

October 10, 2007
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It seems unlikely that many people out for a stroll on Market Street in Center City ever stop to ask themselves, "Should this street be here?"

Market Street exists because Philadelphia does. Some, of course, will recall that it was William Penn and his surveyor Thomas Holme who laid out Philadelphia's brilliant, character-defining street grid in 1683. But even those who forget their history know it's their inalienable right to walk, saunter, jog and drive along the city's thoroughfares. If there is a consensus about anything in our country, it's that city streets are public places. We can amble along Delancey Street and admire the Quaker mansions without having to worry that we're trespassing on private property.

Please excuse me for stating what seems obvious. It's just that there are folks in Philadelphia who are trying to challenge the concept of free and open streets.

Last month, zoning lawyer Michael Sklaroff, former city planner Craig Schelter, and a slew of developers launched what is shaping up as a gloves-off campaign to scuttle an eminently sensible proposal to extend the existing city street grid down to the edge of the Delaware River. The new street network would break up the central waterfront's large, formerly industrial tracts into manageable blocks that could be developed into something resembling a real Philadelphia neighborhood.

That recommendation is the centerpiece of a landmark plan for the waterfront that will be introduced to the public Nov. 14 at the Convention Center. Simple as it sounds, the streets proposal is key to transforming the riverfront into a livable place. But if you listen to Sklaroff and Schelter, you might think that the plan's author, Penn Praxis, was plotting a socialist-style takeover of private property, with the venerable William Penn Foundation and City Hall in cahoots.

In a recent letter to the city planning director, Sklaroff warned that imposing the street grid would be "a disastrous showstopper for waterfront development." But he left it to Schelter, a former top planner who now hires himself out as an adviser to developers, to reveal the true ugliness behind that lawyerly warning.

Speaking to a reporter after the Sept. 20 meeting of Penn Praxis' citizens advisory group, Schelter explained that "there are a lot of people coming in from the suburbs who don't want the rest of the world walking through their project." Sklaroff and Schelter see no reason developers shouldn't be able to erect more gated communities on the Delaware like the hermetic Waterfront Square towers.

It's a good thing this pair wasn't around to counsel Penn and Holmes against laying down Philadelphia's original street grid. If they had, we might well have a high fence encircling Society Hill.

Penn Praxis couldn't find a better model for the Delaware than William Penn's plan. Like the long stretch of waterfront, Center City was already sprouting scattered new development when Philadelphia's founder imposed his enlightened network of big boulevards and slender alleys. The existence of those settlements didn't deter him from setting aside land for common use. He also marked off five big squares to be turned into public gardens.

We revere Penn today as a democratic visionary, but let's not forget that he was also a canny developer. He recognized that the land grant he received from the king of England would be much more valuable if it were improved with the infrastructure of streets and parks. As anyone who has tried a hand at SimCity knows, you have to get your streets in first. Parks are the next step. Penn Praxis will recommend 10 new or improved green spaces between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues.

Of course, carving out new streets and parks costs money, and there will be questions about who pays. Penn Praxis director Harris Steinberg maintains that the city has the legal right to run public streets through private property, although the issue of compensation remains unclear. The city would probably have to foot the bill for construction, but other municipalities have found clever financing methods to offset the expense.

The Penn Praxis plan includes lots of pretty renderings, but keep in mind that those geometric grids of streets and blocks are what will make everything else work. Think of city streets as a corset, holding in check the sprawling tendencies of modern construction. Without the streets, developers will go wild with acre-size big-box stores, massive parking garages, and gated towers.

The grid won't be inviolable. Even now, Philadelphia will zap an existing block off the map when a project justifies the loss. The magnificence of William Penn's street grid is that it remains as flexible in the 21st century as it was in the 17th. "You can still have big stuff, but you have to maintain public access," Steinberg argues.

Public streets are the only way to guarantee that everyone, even those who can't afford a waterfront condo, will be able to walk to a water view. New Jersey was so committed to that idea that it went to court in the 1980s to stop developers from gating its developing Hudson River waterfront.

A few days after Sklaroff and Schelter were arguing for a closed, street-less waterfront, I was experiencing one up close, in San Diego. Eager to glimpse the Pacific Ocean, I strolled from that city's manageable downtown toward the scent of salt water. But I was soon confronted by the impenetrable, four-block-long convention center.

Trying to find a street to lead me to water, I kept walking, past the swirling driveway of the blue-glass Marriott Hotel. Five blocks on, I passed the imposing Grand Hyatt and its circular drive. Six blocks. Seven blocks. It felt like the wall of buildings would never end.

But after 10 full city blocks, I finally came to a public street that led to San Diego's oceanfront. There was just one problem: no sidewalks.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 5, 2007.

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