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Make Philadelphia the Best City in America

Posted Nov 17 2010 5:05pm

This is a lengthy piece, but I really hope you will all read it.  There are some really amazing ideas that could really help ALL of our cities.  Civic engagement is very close to my heart, so I really couldn’t resist sharing this.


It’s time to stop talking about how great we could be and actually start planning how great we will be. We looked at dozens of cities we admire and talked to more than 100 of our smartest citizens to redraw the blueprint. From the fantastical to the no-brainer, we’ve compiled 20 great ideas to change Philadelphia’s future in the next 10 years. We’ll update our list daily in this space, but we’re telling you right now: We need your help. We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. And for Philadelphia to become the Best Damn City in America , everyone who lives here needs to buy into building the future. Leave feedback on our ideas — or submit ideas of your own — in the comments.

RETHINK THE ROWHOME.
By Laura Blau, AIA, LEED AP, Passive House Consultant, and principal, Blupath Design, Inc. and Greensteps, LLC

 
The rowhouse is already a brilliant model to begin with — an individual building that shares its walls and thus creates community while conserving energy with the help of its neighbors. We need only to enhance it. Instead of seeking super-high-tech solutions (or waiting for the next big thing in technology), we can have adaptable, sustainable rowhomes for between two and 10 percent more than traditional building/rehab costs, by following Passive House Standards. (Think heating and cooling a house with the energy required to run a 1,500-watt hair dryer.)

Right now, in Philadelphia, we think of space as narrow, deep, vertical. I envision double- or triple-wide rowhomes with adaptable floor plans, with first-floor retail, or accessible aging-in-place units. Upper floors will easily morph into single-family duplex or triplex units, allowing layered living that’s adaptive to ever-changing ages and sizes of families. Add super-insulated walls to the existing homes, and put new construction, built with modest, durable, nontoxic and renewable materials that will last for a century or two, into the mix. These modern buildings will have reconfigurable interior walls and cabinets, allowing residents to convert and rearrange their spaces according to their personal lifestyle needs without demolition and landfill waste. You want loft living? Separate, private rooms? Home office? No problem: Just reconfigure. These insulated, airtight “transformer” cocoons will require almost no mechanical systems, except for a constant dose of fresh air via automated controls that will adjust ventilation to meet the inhabitants’ needs.

Beyond the rowhome, each block will have gray-water collection and treatment, composting, and shared geothermal wells that allow heat-pump-type cooling in the summer and a bit of auxiliary heating in the winter (since these super-insulated buildings need very little). Pocket parks will abound, and along with urban green roofs and green wall gardens will keep the city as cool as the country. This isn’t pie in the sky, nor is it all that expensive. All the technologies are known and available to us right now. We just have to decide to design intelligently and build better, with a belief in our future … and not just for the buck we’ll make, save or spend this week.


TURN THE NAVY YARD INTO THE GREEN YARD.
By Natalia Olson Urtecho, president and CEO, Ecolibrium Group

Fossil fuel depletion, rapid urbanization, growing population, climate change, and exhaustion of natural resources are all driving up demand for cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable energy solutions, and the Philadelphia region is poised to be at the forefront of America’s clean energy economy, with the Navy Yard at the epicenter. The seed money is already coming in: There’s the recently won $129 million research grant for a Penn State/Navy Yard collaboration on energy-efficient buildings. “Cleantech” research at local universities is well established; Drexel alone received two major federal grants for it this year. We even have the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster, a consortium of businesses, universities and nonprofits that have come together to work on this issue.

Of course, the tough part will be implementing regional policies that support the work; providing incentives for collaboration among university researchers and established businesses; and getting the public to back these efforts. Already, hubs of cleantech entrepreneurship are forming to capitalize on that trend. China continues to advance, and is creating clean-energy jobs much more successfully than the United States. For Philadelphia to lead, we’ll require major transformations in the way we think about innovation, and in how we produce, transmit and consume energy. It will also require a change in the way we think about Philadelphia.

In 1876, visitors came here from all over the country — and the world — when Philadelphia hosted the World’s Fair, which celebrated an era of innovation and entrepreneurship. They were introduced to everything from the first typewriter and telephone to the new steam engine and Heinz ketchup. The city is again on the verge of being the country’s leader, ushering in an era of innovation. What’s cleantech research bringing the world? Everything from eco-friendly cement to algae-generated oil to window shutters that collect solar energy. What’s in it for us? Analysts predict a cleantech boom that will see the alternative-energy industry’s revenues quadruple to $226 billion by 2017. This means new industries and new jobs, at a time when we desperately need them.


SELL THE PECO BUILDING TO DREXEL

We love to talk about how Penn and Drexel transformed West Philly, so why don’t we invite them to move east of the Schuylkill and rejuvenate wasteland-ish West Market? Start by orchestrating PECO’s sale of its headquarters to Drexel, and feel the youthful university vibe spread (hopefully cleansing the bad mojo from all those who’ve waited in line to deal with the utility). The timing couldn’t be better: CHOP’s purchased east-side real estate, and John Fry has started his tenure at Drexel. Fry was by Judy Rodin’s side when she was beautifying Penn’s environs, and while we’re all in favor of his recently announced, but not totally earth-shaking, plans for improving Drexel’s immediate neighborhood, he must be feeling Constantine Papadakis’s legacy breathing down his neck. By going east, Fry makes a huge splash, and Center City dwellers start to feel more connected to the left bank. Bonus: Drexel can lease the Murano condo building for VIP student housing. We hear there are rooms available.

HOW ABOUT WE TRY DEMOCRACY IN PHILADELPHIA?
By Larry Mendte, news commentator

This city’s last Republican mayor, Bernard Samuel, left office in 1952. Since then, someone named Meehan has almost always run Philly’s Republicans. In some towns, there are king-makers; the Meehans are jester-makers. The Democratic Party in this city is like the Harlem Globetrotters, and the GOP is the Washington Generals: They put on a show, but in the end, we all know who’s going to win. So competitive ideas aren’t presented, the status quo is never challenged, and a clear choice isn’t presented. You would think with a city sliding into bankruptcy and a pension fund that was legally raided by politicians, there’d be at least one righteous crusader ready to take on City Hall and ride the wave of voter discontent that’s shaking up political establishments across the country. But in Philadelphia, where modern democracy was born, we’re just observers of democracy. There are young upstarts in the city Republican Party trying to get attention, but right now they’re in the other room, at the kids’ table. It’s time for the Meehans to step aside so we can have a viable Republican candidate next year. So we can try democracy.

CREATE READING VIADUCT PARK

Converting portions of the overgrown 19th-century train tracks, which Reading Railroad still owns but abandoned decades ago, into an elevated park running through Chinatown and the Loft District is an idea that’s been around for years. There are two reasons why we should stop dithering and start implementing the plan: 1) NYC’s similar, successful High Line project opened in June 2009; and 2) A study commissioned recently by the Center City District shows that tearing down our abandoned tracks could cost up to $60 million. Estimate for partial renovation: about $10 million.

STOP WAITING IN LINE AT THE AIRPORT
You live, say, in Newtown. Or in Voorhees. Or in Pottstown. If you want to fly anywhere, you come to Philly. But imagine if the airports in Allentown, Atlantic City and Harrisburg actually had robust rosters of flights to cities you’re likely to fly to. Imagine taking an easier drive away from Philly, to small airports with plenty of parking, short lines and timely departures.

Delaware County legislator (and Congressional candidate) Bryan Lentz has been hammering away at that idea for three years. He wants to create a regional airport authority, so that underutilized smaller airports can handle a lot of the flights — currently about half a million — out of Philly. That number — prepare to shudder — could hit 750,000 by 2035.

The solution of the moment, approved by the FAA, is to throw some dirt in the Delaware and expand PHL runways. But half the flights out of Philly are to destinations within 500 miles, and there’s no reason, Lentz says, these other airports couldn’t handle a big percentage of them. PHL would become much more of an international airport.

Lentz doesn’t stop there: “Amtrak ought to run through the airport. There should be a rail line from the airport along 476 to Lehigh Valley, and one from Philly to Newark,” with all sorts of links. “In Europe, you can get anywhere by rail. We’re getting our asses kicked by the rest of the world as far as transportation.”

There are hurdles: Getting airlines to buy into the idea of regionalism, for one. And having an authority break into the patronage haven that is PHL would ensure a big political fight. But a bill Lentz has introduced, to study the benefits of a regional transportation authority, is where we should at least start.

TEAR DOWN THE GALLERY

We’re open to a more eco-friendly approach, but starting over may be our best option to jump-start the rejuvenation of Market East (see ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition). When building began in the ’70s, the Gallery was intended to rival suburban-style malls. Now we’re stuck with an outdated, inward-facing structure that’s a streetscape tragedy. Brand-new development could offer a healthier retail mix and a hotel (which we’ll need when the Convention Center is fully booked), and lure the big department stores to town.

BE PROUD OF OUR CITY.
By Meryl Levitz, president and CEO, Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation

As a newcomer here in the 1970s, I was struck by how Philadelphians answered my questions about my new home. They didn’t sound happy with Philadelphia, and described what it could be rather than what it was. I took a course called “The Peopling of Pennsylvania” at the Balch Institute to understand it all better, and E. Digby Baltzell, author of Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, explained to me: “My dear, they are apologizing to you. They created the country, and they are not sure what has happened since.”

The city’s identity got lost somewhere — even to its own people. Meanwhile, other cities weren’t waiting around for us to figure us out, and we lost market share in business, residents and students, too. That started to change with Rouse, Rendell, Rimel, Ridge and others who said, “Enough is enough — this is bad for business, and unjustified besides.” But how do we build on that momentum? I think one simple possessive pronoun has the power: Our.

A few years ago, I was in my original hometown of Chicago on business, and as my cab passed the Art Institute, the driver said, “I hope while you’re in town you have time to visit our Art Institute.” He didn’t say “the Art Institute.” He said “our Art Institute.” Clearly, he was proud of his city and wanted to share it. So could we all start saying “our”? Our schools. Our parks. Our libraries.

This is a great city. This is our great city.

CLOSE PUBLIC LIBRARIES.

That’s right. The Michael Nutter book-in-mouth disaster when he was trimming the budget last year actually makes sense. We wouldn’t close all the libraries, of course. Or even most of them. But Loree Jones, co-executive director of the mentoring organization City Year, has a plan: She proposes that we open library branches within our public schools that have no libraries, or have libraries with no books, or have a few books jammed into a closet. That way, the libraries would not only serve the schools but also become community hubs — as after-school oases for children and computerized job-resource centers for neighborhood adults, for example. Security issues will have to be sorted out, but if the community is invited in, folks who never set foot in their local schools would actually start feeling connected to them. Which might just have a sweet side effect: A firsthand look at the sorry state of public education in this city could bring an outcry, one that pushes the powers-that-be to make schools better.

OPEN A CINEPLEX IN CENTER CITY

We’d never forsake our independent-minded Ritz -theaters, but we crave a Center City spot for blockbusters. Build the glitzy, modern structure in that parking lot at 8th and Market, to help spur rehab of Market East and finally put the “Disney Hole” behind us.

BECOME THE HEALTHIEST REGION IN THE COUNTRY. 
By Steven M. Altschuler, CEO, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

I would like to see Philadelphia become the healthiest region in the country. As the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area, we have the opportunity to improve the health of six million people. To do so requires that we make full use of the unique characteristics of the Philadelphia region.

We see examples of progress already. Expanded, safe bike lanes are just one way local residents can enjoy a healthier lifestyle. But we need to continue to identify more strategies for people of all ages and wellness levels.

We can learn from other towns and cities. I spend some time in Park City, Utah, and see how residents there live a healthier lifestyle because of year-round access to outdoor activities, such as biking and hiking. Other cities have installed free outdoor gyms and formed community walking groups. Some offer opportunities for communities to collectively purchase fresh, healthy food.

Philadelphia, however, has a distinct offering  — a rich “Meds & Eds” culture. Health care is the largest employer in our region today. We’re also a huge college town, with three major research universities and world-renowned educational institutions.

By creating an alliance of leaders in these sectors, along with business and government, we can develop a plan for the future. We need to ask: “If we want to be the healthiest region in the country 20 years from now, how do we get there?” I think all the components for success exist in our city now.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and Comcast’s cable network are outlets that can serve as conduits for communicating our health-improvement goals to the public. Our research community has the ability to identify opportunities to improve the health of our residents. And our medical community can help translate this research into practices that can save and improve lives.

If we want to build a culture of good health, the infrastructure is already here. We must tap into our regional resources, conduct research to discover new ways to improve health, and then teach the broader community how to incorporate those ideas into their daily lives.

 


 ERECT A FERRIS WHEEL AT PENN’S LANDING.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Burying I-95 would be fabulous. But owing to both the financial collapse and the fact that Boston ran up a $22 billion “Big Dig” tab tunneling part of its interstate, we don’t see our divisive road disappearing from view anytime soon. So we’re calling for a Ferris wheel à la the London Eye along the riverfront, at Penn’s Landing. By nature, most of the structure would be in the air; the Eye’s footprint is quite small, though our ride could be scaled down and still yield fantastic views in all directions. There it would spin, attracting tourists (the Eye draws almost four million a year), romantic Philadelphians, SugarHouse gamblers coming up for air, and perhaps those who just happen to be strolling the now-proposed Race Street Pier park — all the while serving as a towering visual reminder to the rest of the teeming city that there, just over that highway, we’ve got something cool. Something amusing, and a bit futuristic, too. Who knows? Visitor demand could drive projects like the light rail that’s been envisioned along Columbus Boulevard, improve walkability, and eventually ease access to the riverfront. Over the past few decades, multibillion-dollar projects such as water parks and science centers have been proposed and not built, yet the Eye cost just $125.45 million to build. If we dub our Ferris wheel “The Peacock” and take design cues from the bird’s feathers, maybe we can entice NBC-ified Comcast to foot the bill for the prominent promo of its mascot.

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