What is “Our City” going to look like 30 years from now?

That’s a question that often gets overlooked in the day-to-day activities of running a city government. In fact, responsibility for the shape and character of a city’s physical appearance is often left to a small group of planners who are sometimes both physically as well as philosophically separated from the rest of the government.

Elected officials, especially those facing electoral challenges or limited in the number of years they are able to serve, have little incentive and little time to think 30 years down the road. Their focus, often justifiably, is on tackling today’s problems and sometimes, if they have a little time, tomorrow’s.

The Nutter Administration, and the mayor himself, has so far talked the talk when it comes to having a long range views of city issues. Several of the mayor’s early appointments were to positions that deal directly with zoning, planning and development and acknowledged the relationship among the three. From Commerce Director/Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Andy Altman to his latest appointment of Mark Alan Hughes as Sustainability Director, Nutter has demonstrated a willingness to find folks with excellent reputations in these forward-thinking fields to fill the positions.

Now that such appointments have been made, the real question is what kinds of policies and actions can we expect? To one particularly vocal critic of the previous two administrations’ lack of commitment to planning, the actions so far have been laudable.

PlanPhilly, an excellent project dedicated to reporting and analysis of the latest news in the city’s planning and physical development, recently published an interview of Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron. Saffron, profiled in a recent Philadelphia Magazine piece, has been known to wield a powerful pen (or word processor) that is capable of taking down the mightiest and blightiest black eyes on the fabric of the city. Her opinions and her way of writing about such esoteric subjects as architecture and planning have brought the discussion of such things to a level on which everyone can participate and understand.

So when PlanPhilly asked for her evaluation of the current administration, it’s worth diving into:

PlanPhilly: So how is Nutter doing?

Saffron: “Nutter is more worldly and sophisticated. He sees the need for a better balance between making it easier for developers and looking out for the public good.

“I thought the thing with Stamper Square was a pretty good compromise, given the situation. Nutter hired Andy Altman, who said that you can’t give carte blanche rezoning. If you give rezoning, there should be a price.

“It’s so simple. Why hadn’t anybody thought of that before? Rezoning was done left and right under Street, and no one thought to ask for money for it. It’s a very good rule of thumb: If we give you a special deal, it comes with a price – a public price.

“Unfortunately, in the past, the price was campaign contributions.”

Saffron said it’s way too early to judge how well Nutter will do, though. “You can’t change the world in 100 days,” she said. “But he hired people who are clearly skilled and pro-planning. He hired a director of sustainability. Planning is a theme at a lot of events. You can’t change the world on day 1 or day 100, but you can set an agenda. You can hire people who believe in planning as a philosophy, and you can talk about that philosophy as a leader. You can change people’s expectations, and the expectations of developers and developers’ lawyers.

“He has done what a leader does. We have to wait to judge how well he does, but he’s set the boat on the right course.”

The fact that development has slowed just as a mayor who says planning is important does not concern Saffron. “We are entering a much slower time, but it’s good to catch your breath, to evaluate what you have done and get perspective on it.” Besides, she said, planning has a much greater effect in the future than in the present, so any planning now will be in place to guide the next boom, she said.

Unfortunately, she’s right. Ultimately, history will be the only judge of how Nutter is doing on planning and development right now. To consider that I’ll be in my 60s by the time we can make that assessment is a little depressing but also a cause for hope. Even if the casinos succeed and come into place on the waterfront, when you take a long range view, it gives you some degree of hope that today’s damage is not irreparable. If Nutter’s administration and folks like Altman can get behind such things as the community-developed vision for the Delaware Waterfront (for example), at least we can hope for tomorrow.

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