Blog Keystone State Experts Share Insights for Seattle’s Waterfront

High above the Seattle early evening skyline on Thursday, at the Harbor Club on Second Ave., a group of citizens and leaders concerned about the future of Seattle’s waterfront gathered to hear about lessons in waterfront revivalism and sustainability from their City of Brotherly Love brethren. The discussion, organized by Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, focused on what Seattle can learn (and potentially apply) from a process that the historic city of Philadelphia went through over the last several years to reclaim its waterfront along its equally historic Delaware River.
Seattle’s waterfront, with its magnificent vistas of mountains, islands and the Puget Sound, is arguably the grandest in all of the United States. It is home to marinas, the port, restaurants and shops. Amidst discussion of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the seawall, however, a uniting geographical coordinate on the map has sometimes become a divisive point of debate. Underlying that debate, of course, is concern — ultimately it is concern about the best steps the Emerald City can take to maintain and improve this most valuable of natural assets in a way that embraces the future while also respecting the past.
This set of circumstances — uniting a city behind a collective civic vision for the long term sustainability of a waterfront — is one that is most certainly not unique to Seattle. And in the case of Philadelphia, after several ill-fated attempts over the years to tackle its waterfront challenge, success only came through a civic-driven process, characterized by openness, transparency and integrity.
In the Fall of 2006, then-mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, authorized via executive order PennPraxis to develop and lead a publicly focused planning process for the city’s central Delaware riverfront.
“The central Delaware (in Philadelphia) had become a landscape of big box stores and gated communities,” Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, told the assembled crowd at the Harbor Club discussion on Thursday. “It wasn’t living up to its promise.”
PennPraxis is headquartered out of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and according to its Web site, is a “vehicle for carrying out practical or applied projects for external clients.” It is difficult to get more practical and applied than confronting a major project that is at the center of a city’s soul.
“The question we had before us was, ‘How do you connect the waterfront back to the city?'” said Steinberg. He said it was a grim situation, as the central waterfront was “disconnected, under threat and under seige.”
In a paper he wrote about the project, he describes the waterfront in question as “an 1146-acre post-industrial landscape that had been undergoing slow and unplanned change over the past 50-years…a federal highway built in the 1970s and 1980s severed the area from the dense residential neighborhoods adjacent to the river, creating difficult public access to the waterfront.” The city “began calling for a plan that would guide development for the central Delaware,” Steinberg wrote, and “PennPraxis, with the support of the William Penn Foundation, was invited to lead the effort.” PennPraxis, he told the Seattle gathering, was approached in part because “no one really trusted the planning commission.”
Listening to Steinberg, who comes across as sincere, informed and likable, it seems like he was made for the job. Indeed, to hear him describe the mood of distrust that permeated the very idea of revitalizing the seven-mile area, and the context of the city’s earlier failed attempts, you’d be excused if you chalked his success up to the great man theory. But Steinberg — and the facts — would disagree with you.
Ultimately, as described to the group assembled in Seattle and in his paper, the successful 13-month process (Oct. 2006-Nov. 2007) “engaged more than 4000 Philadelphians in the creation of A Civic Vision for the Central Delaware.” He describes it as “one of the largest public planning processes in Philadelphia’s history with respect to the extent of citizen involvement.” Critical, too, he says was the role of the press in engaging the process and ensuring a transparency to it. PennPraxis worked closely with local media (especially the editorial board of The Philadelphia Daily News). Additionally, PennPraxis created a news site — PlanPhilly — to cover the entire visioning process including public meetings and events. PlanPhilly, he says, essentially created a reporting beat (in the form of a news site) exclusively devoted to covering the issue.
The lessons articulated in the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware are founded on an open, civic-driven process characterized by transparency and integrity.
The first set of lessons begins with having a respected, unbiased team with responsibility for the project. In the case of Philadelphia, for example, PennPraxis and the William Penn Foundation wouldn’t take the project unless it met these criteria: citizen-driven; open and transparent; having involvement of the press; and, that recommendations created by the process and the implementation of those “would be accountable to the public voice that created the plan.” The second set of lessons revolves around creating values and principles deriving from the citizens involved in the process. For Philadelphia, agreed-to values revolved around safety, culture, the environment, the economy and history. The principles established included: reconnecting with the water, honoring the river, designing with nature in mind, and protecting the public good.

“At the central section of the project area, cover, sink or remove the interstate in order to reconnect the city with the river.”

Another important lesson is that design ideas were tethered to values and principles. Only after values and principles were created, for example, did the process in Philadelphia move to the design-recommendation stage. And even once there, the five design teams were “to respect the civic planning principles.” According to Steinberg, that level of consistency and commitment eventually yielded several concrete ideas for the central Delaware, including integration of the “industrial past into the public open space system,” designing the waterfront to allow for “a wide mix of uses,” and “at the central section of the project area, cover, sink or remove the interstate in order to reconnect the city with the river.”
Seattle isn’t Philadelphia, and a river isn’t a bay. But as was clear in listening to Steinberg and his colleagues, despite the two cities’ differences, both benefit from a fundamental strength: an ingrained civic-mindedness. So, even though Seattle isn’t done with its process, there are many lessons that PennPraxis and Philadelphia have to teach. Maybe the most important one? None of this has to take forever: Once the momentum was there, it only took Philadelphia 13 months to create, organize and implement a plan for its valued, historic waterfront.