Mayor signs up Penn Praxis

Tell the average Philadelphian there’s a new plan afoot for the Delaware waterfront and you’ll likely be greeted with skepticism. That’s because the river frontage has endured decades of bad planning. Or, to be more accurate, no planning at all. What started out badly in the ’60s, when I-95 first cut its rude swathe between the city and the river, has only gotten worse in the intervening years, until what we have today, says Harris Steinberg, is “a no-man’s land of big box stores, bridges over 95, remote quasi-public spaces and old industrial brownfields.” In sum, “it’s the backdoor waiting to become our front lawn.”

And Steinberg, executive director of Penn Praxis, the School of Design’s practice clinic, is now in a position to guide that transformative process. Mayor Street recently signed an executive order to create a master plan for the seven-mile stretch of the Delaware River from Oregon Avenue to Allegheny. He asked Penn Praxis to lead the effort. This time, says Steinberg, there is real hope for a viable solution.

“This is an incredible validation of work we’ve done here,” says Steinberg, who has led Penn Praxis in civic engagement initiatives that tackled the 40th Street Corridor, Penn’s Landing, the implications of casinos and Philadelphia public school design. Steinberg sees the Delaware as the “missing link” in terms of Philadelphia city planning (“The Navy Yard has a plan, the Schuylkill has a plan”). And this is a critical time for the riverfront, he adds, since private developers are buying land and building on the river at an alarming rate and there is the very real specter of one or possibly two “mammoth” casinos. Licenses for the latter will be issued within the next couple of months, and the 15 civic organizations that line the river are “freaking out,” according to Steinberg. The mayor has tapped Penn Praxis as a neutral party that can help broker citizens’ dreams and bring world-class design to the waterfront.

Steinberg says involving a consulting group like Penn Praxis represents a distinct departure from previous attempts at riverfront planning. For starters, Penn Praxis works on a foundation of open civic dialogue, in contrast to the Penn’s Landing Corporation, which conducted much of its business behind closed doors. “That left a really bad taste in the public’s mouth,” he says, “and we’re hoping to erase that perception.” The advisory group Penn Praxis will assemble represents a wide range of public and private organizations, and a series of planned forums will involve the entire community. Steinberg has already reached out to the river ward civic groups and plans to meet with their leaderships, walk the riverfront and put a face to Penn Praxis.

Steinberg sees Penn Praxis’ task as a “huge facilitation and orchestration job,” a major component of which will be assuring people that “we’re not out there to subvert plans but to listen, coordinate, collaborate and connect institutions to the resources Penn can bring.” He anticipates that public meetings in January and February will bring experts from around the world to join in public discussions and ultimately an internationally acclaimed design team will come up with a compelling vision for the waterfront.

Having the administration fully behind his efforts is critical, says Steinberg, who has “solid and direct links” with the planning commission and the city’s new planning chief, Janice Woodcock. “There couldn’t be a better partner inside the administration,” he says. Another positive sign, he notes, is that Penn Praxis has also been called on to create a structure for the body that will actually implement the plan.

This stretch of the Delaware is hardly a ‘tabula rasa’ acknowledges Steinberg. A number of development deals have already been struck and several high-rise condos have been built or are in the works, making public access to the river problematic. “We’ll be working around a lot of moving parts,” he says. “That can make it transcend into the exquisite, but getting there will also be exquisitely difficult.”

For more information on the plan for the Central Delaware Riverfront, go to, a new web portal designed to promote dialogue about the future of Philadelphia.

Originally published on November 2, 2006.

Originally published on November 2, 2006