Penn’s Landing a key opportunity?

Larry McEwan, student Jarrett Payne and urban designer Robert Brown

The Penn’s Landing forums drew professionals and citizens, including (from left) architect Larry McEwan, student Jarrett Payne and urban designer Robert Brown.

When Mayor John Street announced last month that development plans for Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing had once again been put on hold, Harris Steinberg, unlike many other Philadelphians, wasn’t disappointed.

In fact, he was optimistic.

That’s because Steinberg, executive director of the Penn Praxis program at Penn’s School of Design, believes when it comes to development at Penn’s Landing, patience is a virtue. Steinberg says the Penn’s Landing site—a sliver of land between I-95 and the Delaware River, just blocks from Center City—provides the city a one-of-a-kind opportunity to remake its image as a “river city.” And, he says, rushing into any plan won’t help anyone.

“I’ve said before and I’ll say again: William Penn didn’t give Rittenhouse Square to the developers—that’s public land, and we are very happy and fortunate to be the inheritors of that land,” Steinberg says. “We need to take the same attitude toward the city’s waterfront.” Since at least 2002, Steinberg has been pushing city officials and residents to do just that. That was when Steinberg, after hearing about the failure of yet another Penn’s Landing development proposal, set about pulling together a group of like-minded experts with an interest in the site’s future. They eventually launched the Penn’s Landing Public Forums, a seven-week public dialogue that brought together experts and citizens to discuss the future of not only Penn’s Landing, but the entirety of Philadelphia’s 38 miles of waterfront. The forums were co-sponsored by Penn and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and proved to be a massive success.

“[The forums] provided a reasoned, deliberate and informed public conversation about the waterfront, and it turned out to be more successful than we ever imagined,” Steinberg said. “Despite it being just a little spit of land, Penn’s Landing seemed to hold a great symbolic value for Philadelphians.”

So successful, in fact, that recommendations from the forums eventually found their way into the city’s official development guidelines for the site, and Steinberg recently traveled to Milwaukee to accept an award on behalf of the forum from the Waterfront Center.

A nonprofit group that promotes responsible development of urban waterfronts, the Center honored the Penn Forums as an outstanding grass-roots waterfront development effort.

Drawing input from more than 700 citizens, 30 design and planning experts, 27 architects and others, the forum produced seven planning principles for the Penn’s Landing site. Participants called for an open planning process and a plan that would be “distinctively Philadelphia,” among other recommendations.

“I think now there is a strong connection between the forums and the Mayor’s vision,” Steinberg says. “What we would love to happen now is for that dialogue to continue.”

Steinberg says the city seems willing to move Penn’s Landing development ahead slowly—but he says officials must also set that planning within the context of the rest of the city’s waterfront. Only by laying out a comprehensive waterfront use plan will Philadelphia be able to fully take advantage of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and become a true river city, he says. “There’s no overall connective plan or policy yet,” he says. “It would be wonderful to take some time as a city and as a citizenry to figure out what we would like to do with our waterfront.”

Originally published on November 4, 2004