NABR Testimony to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission

Longtime NABR and urban planning expert, Shawn Rairigh, recently presented the following testimony to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission at their May monthly meeting.

PCPC Meeting, May 19, 2009
NABR Testimony presented by Shawn Rairigh


Greetings. First, forgive me for smiling, but in my ten years as an urban planner, I've never heard anyone claim that bike trails and waterfront parks lower property values and discourage new residents.

I represent Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront - NABR for short. We are a grassroots activist group that seeks better planning and ideas for the riverfront. We originally formed in Fishtown and Northern Liberties but now have membership throughout the city.

Our group formed as a response to the Wild West atmosphere of development along the waterfront in 2006. At that time, dozens of speculation-driven projects were going after permits, led by teams of lawyers expert in guiding projects through the then-shady zoning board of adjustment. There was minimal public input, and minimal input from the planning commission, and a complete lack of planning for the waterfront as a whole.

As a result, the waterfront was quickly becoming a wall of gated condo towers, seas of surface parking, a canyon of garages along Del. Ave., and no public access to the waterfront.

I want to remind the commission that this sad vision for the future is still in play.

Thankfully, the Penn Praxis planning effort came to pass - easily the most ambitious and exciting planning done in Philadelphia since the Ed Bacon era. But unlike the Bacon era, this was a true civic vision. In addition to the usual city officials, engineers, planners, developers, lawyers, and other interests that do plan-making - residents - by the tens of thousands - involved themselves. The Vision that came from that effort successfully captured the values that the citizens of Philadelphia want for their waterfront.

Today is the first step towards making that vision a reality. The first step in creating a legacy that Philadelphians have overwhelming approved of. A legacy that Philadelphia needs to remain competitive - to replace some of the hundreds of thousands of residents and their jobs that fled this city over the years.

NABR asks you to approve the zoning overlay, and do it today. Any delay is a step back to 2006's Wild West Waterfront.

NABR also would like the Commission to adopt several amendments to the overlay:

One - require a 100' setback for all parcels, no matter their underlying zoning. 100' is an amount consistant with the central waterfronts of many other great cities, and it is crucial that continuous public access be allowed.

Two - require a public process for any variance process, where community members can attend and testify.

Three - add gaming and casinos to the list of prohibited uses. You may remember that the Gaming Board chose the original casino sites as - in their terms - "bookends" to a waterfront entertainment district. Sooner or later, the state will attempt to place additional casinos in Philadelphia, and we need to send a message now that it will not be on the waterfront.

Thank you.


Clearly, this bill is intended to facilitate the needs of one single project, yet it threatens entire sections of the city. I realize the city is in a predicament where it is required to let Sugarhouse build, but I want you to remind you that Sugarhouse's latest "redesign" and this bill that supports it goes against the most essential elements of the Civic Vision that you publicly supported just last month. Nowhere in the Civic Vision is there room for seas of surface parking, the city's largest parking garage, and stand alone buildings that are set back far from the street.

Everyone here knows how easily "temporary" uses become permanant, and without a sunset clause, this bill will encourage the northern part of the waterfront to become nothing more than a permanant sea of parking lots.

In fifty years, Philadelphians will hopefully look with pride at their beautiful waterfront as a whole, but ponder the weird area around Frankfort Avenue that is so unlike the rest of the waterfront. How did someone allow a casino slot box and tons of surface parking here? Who let that happen? This vote is your legacy.

Thank you.


Again, if you agree with the Civic Vision, as you did last month, and agree with the ideas of perpendicular access presented in the overlay you just voted for, then you cannot support this measure. Grid is Good was the rallying cry of the Civic Vision, and here we have the grid, a small piece I know, but publically owned and linked into the rest of the neighborhood. It is not the City's responsibility to help Sugarhouse make nice with their financiers - some other group will eventually build a casino there if they can't. It is the city's responsibility to enforce good planning at all times.

Thank you.