For over 30 years, Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront was considered a corrupt wasteland of opportunity where RFP followed RFP but nothing got built. Then, suddenly, a master plan materialized and was adopted by City Council last month. The success of “A Civic Vision for Central Delaware” is credited by many to PennPraxis, the nonprofit consultancy arm of PennDesign at the University of Pennsylvania. Praxis is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
“They reoriented the direction the city was going in,” said Inga Saffron, architecture critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer. PennPraxis was created to allow both students and professors the chance to practice in a real-world environment through analyzing and developing proposals for actual urban situations. In its first decade, the program has billed some $16 million in international consultancy fees.
One of the first projects they tackled was the waterfront. Penn Design’s then-dean Gary Hack said such university/civic exchanges are commonplace in China, but are rare stateside where liabilities are a major concern. When Hack presented the idea to then-president Judith Rodin, he recalled her responding, “Liabilities? What are you talking about—I have five hospitals!” Hack said the same hands-on approach works for planning. “Hospitals are critical to education and I argue that it’s the same for architecture,” he said.
Skeptics were concerned that Penn was doing the city’s job, but given the area’s troubled history, most Philadelphians were ready to throw up their hands. Mayor Ed Rendell, later governor and more comfortable in smoke-filled back rooms than public planning, promoted giving the place over to the salivating casino industry. His successor, Mayor John Street, was no less dubious, but most give him credit for allowing a non-governmental organization to take the lead. All the while, the William Penn Foundation, one of Philadelphia’s most powerful philanthropic organizations, backed up the effort financially.
As Praxis developed its waterfront plan, they relied on traditional media to gain traction and also launched an independent and now a very popular website called PlanPhilly.com. “PlanPhilly had more impact than anything that I can think of in years,” said Gary Jastrzab, executive director at the City Planning Commission. “They really stepped in and created a whole new group that follows planning closely.”
Their approach has deep grass roots. Months of community meetings headed up by Praxis director Harris Steinberg mined the riverside communities for ideas, rather than presenting them with developers’ pre-cooked plans.
It hasn’t hurt that shortly after, the city’s latest mayor, Michael Nutter, threw full support behind planning, giving teeth to the previously ignored Planning Commission. The mayor killed the shady Penn’s Landing Corporation and formed the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. Jastrzab credited Praxis’s work on the riverfront with spurring a citywide zoning overhaul that will go into effect this August. “They conducted what is considered an unprecedented civic outreach process,” he said. “With that central Delaware master plan underway, Mayor Nutter then was able to provide the political foundation for a citywide master plan.”