Despite a nearly insurmountable poverty problem, Philadelphia has undergone remarkable changes under the leadership of its last six mayors. Most notable are the expansion of Center City to twice its size since 1970; the juggernaut of institutional expansion in West Philadelphia; and the reemergence of the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia as a hub of major job generators.
But the number of abandoned properties has also grown, along with the often hostile debate between poorer long term residents in gentrifying neighborhoods and new residents who have chosen to invest in those same places. Major transportation and utility infrastructure is aging dramatically without a sustainable financial structure to insure its replacement.
For eight years, I have the pleasure and privilege of leading the Development Workshop, bringing 42 years of experience in planning and development in Philadelphia to the task of making our city an attractive place to invest in and to develop. By offering the best advice to city government, we have sought to strengthen the city’s tax base, create jobs, and foster healthy neighborhoods while tackling the problems of blight and poverty that have held us back for decades. As a reality-based problem-solving group of professionals, our consistent message encourages a predictable public approval process of planning and development.
As I look over the past eight years of accomplishments, several things stand out:
The need for the Development Workshop became apparent when the planning and development community mobilized in response to three events: an overly ambitious PennPraxis plan for the Delaware waterfront, an inclusionary housing bill before City Council, and a Zoning Code Commission created to develop a new zoning code.
When the financial crisis brought development to a halt countrywide, many shovel-ready projects were put on hold. The Workshop was a key participant in securing state legislation to provide permit extension so that when the financial turnaround came, previously approved projects could get off the ground quickly and developers would not be penalized with further costly delays. We fought back the earliest assaults on a 10-year tax abatement for real estate development, responded to the new administration’s lack of a consistent message to the development community, and engaged PlanPhilly as it emerged as the only media outlet consistently focused on Philadelphia planning and development.
We delivered public testimony to ensure that a new waterfront agency focused on a realistic and sustainable plan for the future of the Delaware riverfront. We advocated for a developer-friendly zoning code while also and developing a new model to incorporate citizen participation into the planning process. While we believed the legislative approval of the new code to be premature, we cautioned policy makers on likely “fixes” that would be necessary so as not to impede development.
We gauged the impact of the new code and lobbied for much needed amendments to maintain development momentum. We sought realistic development guidelines and remained steadfast in our support for the 10-year tax abatement while proposing a 20-year abatement in marginal neighborhoods to encourage more.
Finding progress insufficient in the Planning Commission’s district planning and citywide zoning remapping, we lobbied City Council and the Mayor to increase the Commission's resources. We also engaged City Council in an extended debate over their proposal for a charter change amendment that would create a new cabinet-level Department of Planning and Development.
Our focus has been on coalition building. Working with the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia and the 19 neighborhood members of the Crosstown Coalition, we advocated for crucial changes of the City Council-driven charter amendment that would restructure the administration of planning, zoning, and development into a new Department of Planning and Development.
With this successful track record behind me, I have decided to step down as Executive Director of the Development Workshop.
With the advent of a new mayor and the call of other priorities in my life, it is time to let others carry the ball further. It has been a truly rewarding and collegial experience working with Michael Sklaroff, as we have defined the mission and built the membership over the past eight years. It has been heartening to see the breadth of experience brought by the Workshop members. My colleagues and I are grateful for their invaluable guidance and support during this period. Special thanks is due Rich Lombardo and Diana Horen for their strong informational and administrative support, continually keeping us abreast of new and creative ways to do our jobs better and also mindful of the sometimes disheartening realities that one needs to confront in this city we all love.
Thank you for your support and for the privilege of working with you over the past eight years. I encourage your continuing and active participation in making the Development Workshop and its members a fair, competent, and financially sustainable resource for development in the City of Philadelphia.
G. Craig Schelter