As population falls, Philadelphia considers `shrinking gracefully'

Planners seek to reassert themselves on vision of smaller city

January 15, 2001|By Thomas Ginsberg | Thomas Ginsberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Forty years ago, Philadelphia's legendary city planners mapped out a metropolis growing potentially to 3 million people, then set out to have it built.

There was one problem: The prediction was completely wrong. People were fleeing to the suburbs.

Planners tried for years to stop the trend by making a bigger, better city. But that meant glossing over the reality: Philadelphia was shrinking in population.

"If you say that, you completely invalidate yourself," said Edmund Bacon, 89, the city's renowned former planning director. "The planner fights plans for shrinkage."

Today, the City Planning Commission is fighting back against Bacon's mantra. Once counted among the best planning agencies in the country, the beleaguered commission is attempting a comeback by openly talking about "shrinking gracefully" and mulling ways to remake Philadelphia - this time smaller.

Whether the commission can succeed is another question. In interviews with planners, former officials and experts, many acknowledged that the city lacked a realistic view of its plight in decades past and that the commission needed more influence in recent years. But they disagreed whether either would have made a difference today. More important, many said, now that city finances are stabilized, the commission must reassert itself to help Mayor John F. Street create a new vision of what a smaller Philadelphia can be.

Population slide

"We took good advantage of our fiscal crisis to change attitudes," said Jeremy Nowak, president of the Reinvestment Fund, a community-development group. "But I'm not sure we took advantage of the opportunity to drive the vision of where the city needs to go now."

At an estimated 1.4 million last year, the population is down 168,000 since 1990 and 654,000 since its 1950 peak - more than any other U.S. city. Philadelphia lost 28,800 jobs in the 1990s and 224,600 since 1950.

Charged with watching those numbers and charting the city's needs and prospects, the commission under new leaders is creating a master "framework" for redevelopment that includes adapting neighborhoods for fewer people in smaller households.

Maxine Griffith, the commission's new executive director, has a lead role in Street's $250 million plan to clear blighted areas. Her agency intends soon to release a long-awaited report on dismal city trends, called "Livable City." It is reviewing a decade-old plan for Center City, the only section where population grew during the 1990s. It has even begun modernizing the zoning code.

And the commission, finally, may get a larger staff after wallowing as one of the smallest, per capita, among major U.S. cities. Street intends to boost the 53-person office by 12, half of whom would be neighborhood planners, Griffith said.

"We've got to plan for the city we have," said Griffith, a former New York City planner. "Will it be planning for a city of 2.2 million? I doubt it. But I don't think we can sit around waiting for people to come back before we make it better."

`Better Room'

She even offered a light-hearted city slogan to encapsulate her approach: "Philadelphia: More Room for Those Who Stayed."

Then she quickly amended it: "No, it's `Better Room.'"

For example, she said, planners are considering new rules for the ideal distance between residents and neighborhood facilities they use, such as libraries, recreation areas, or elder-care centers. Distances will vary depending on neighborhood, although overall they could grow because of lower city density.

In city services, planners will look for ways that agencies can consolidate facilities into a single building, or even put after-hour services into local school buildings.

In blighted areas, Griffith said, she wants to speed up the takeover and development of vacant properties. The ultimate goal is building more low-density housing, like recent projects in the West Poplar section of North Philadelphia in which rowhouses were replaced by free-standing twins with small yards, driveways, trees and new streets - a suburban look.

"We can re-pattern the neighborhoods," Griffith said. Griffith inherited a commission largely ignored by former Mayor Edward G. Rendell. Many plans collected dust and staffers were handling nuts-and-bolts issues, such as zoning, while Rendell worked with close aides on development, with or without a plan.

`We were dying'

"We were dying; we could not wait five years for a massive new plan," said David L. Cohen, former mayoral chief of staff. "We had the view that traditional urban-planning activities are overstated in value. If you let the private market operate in a broadly defined vision, you will maximize development. . . . I think the results were spectacular."

The obscurity was not new. Since Bacon's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, planners have enjoyed intermittent support from city leaders. Their warnings often were put on a back burner.

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