PCPC Article

Jennifer Barr grew up only riding in a car twice a year. With a mother that was legally blind and a father who only owned a work car, she and her family relied on SEPTA to get everywhere. Barr, a city planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, grew up with a love for the city that can’t be explained.

“A lot of love for this city and all things urban was the way we were raised,” Barr said. “My mom always thought Philly was such a wonderful place.”

Barr got started with the planning commission because her sister had a job in Center City Philadelphia and told her they needed an intern. Barr, who was finishing graduate school at Rutgers University at the time, jumped at the opportunity. At this job she spent a lot of time with planners and decided she enjoyed city planning.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission got its start as a way to figure out how to properly spend the city’s money. Pennsylvania state law requires that planners have a citywide comprehension plan every 10 years, and Philadelphia hadn’t done one since 1960. They had to start thinking of the future of the city.

“We were watching all our peer cities, such as New York City, doing these plans and it just seemed right,” Barr said. “It was the right time for Philadelphia to start being proactive again.”

Planners were worried that the community would not handle the change well because the city had not done a plan in so long, so they started a program called Imagine Philadelphia. In this program they held open-ended community meetings to see if residents were interested in any change. Once the commission received a grant from the William Penn Foundation, it was the perfect time for the plan to get started, Barr said.

The PCPC recently started a new plan called Philly 2035, with hopes of reforming the city into a better place by 2035, working on sections at a time. Barr explained that it wasn’t anyone’s full time job and started out as something on the side that they had to work on along with their real jobs.

“I’m proud that we did it in house,” Barr said. “We didn’t have to reach out and spend millions of dollars asking for help.”

Planners hope that this plan will get people to think about being more strategic and thoughtful with investments and funding for the city, and push development in areas that could have a big impact. They also want the plan to help with zoning and rewrite district codes because the maps often don’t reflect what is actually there, Barr said.

The commission started out with the West Park and Lower South districts as almost a test to see if the plan would be successful. Next they plan to work on Central district and then lower North East. Barr explained that the plans will blend into each other but the process could take six to seven years.

Out of the Philly 2035 plan, Barr hopes to see a lot more mass transit, better city transit in the neighborhoods, and more employment opportunities. She also wants to see the neighborhoods surrounding Center City be more stable and have better amenities in the neighborhoods.

So many people work in the city, and the idea of the plan is to have more people want to live in it, Barr said. She thinks that Philadelphia will almost be like Boston or D.C. when finished with this plan, rather than people thinking of its reputation as a bad place.

Alan Greenberger, the deputy mayor for economic development, was one of the only commission members appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter. He joined the commission solely because the mayor asked him to work on the Philly 2035 plan.

“I’m very happy with the way it’s going so far,” Greenberger said. “The first two districts were experimental, but I think they’re going on the right track.”

Greenberger said that the plan is a guide, not to completely predict what will happen, but instead to be a framework that the city can work off of.

He said that if the people of Philadelphia and the developers are on the same page, the community will approve more of what they’re doing.

“We don’t assume that it’s going to work perfectly,” Greenberger said. “We can’t be too bull-headed about it or it won’t work.”

Greenberger wants to see three crucial points improve in the city from the plan: deeper development on transit nodes, commercial corridors tightened up for less vacancy, and identifying how public spaces can be better organized.

Gary Jastrzab, executive director, has been a member of the commission a bit longer than Greenberger. As a child he could already tell that he was interested in architecture because he loved model trains and cars. Since he had relatives living in Philadelphia during his childhood, he had always been intrigued by the city.

“I had always wanted to work in a large city planning agency,” said Jastrzab, who attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, and was hired then by the PCPC as a consultant. “There was never a question of what I wanted to do with my life.”

Jastrzab explains that the commission never could have started the Philly 2035 plan without Nutter’s support. He was the first mayor in a very long time who was interested in planning for the city, Jastrzab said. This citywide vision, which started in June 2011, was a more detailed analysis of the 18 areas and recommendations for improving quality of life and other projects in that area.

“We chose Lower South and West Park districts to work on first because we wanted to get the system down. We thought these areas would be less complicated,” Jastrzab said. “We talked them in reverse order by susceptibility to change.”

After Center City and Lower North East districts, they plan to move to University City and Upper North Philadelphia.

Gary Jastrzab hopes to see better serving of the Centennial District and a transformation into a modern industrial area with public access allowed by further developments of riverfronts such as the Delaware River and Schuylkill waterfront.

City planners are also working on an extension of the Broad Street line to the Navy Yard, along with many other transit extensions.

Jastrzab thinks that this plan will transform the city into a much more habitable and transportation-friendly place-not just cars, but other forms such as trains and bicycles. He also sees it becoming more pedestrian friendly while the population continues to grow, yet still maintain diversity and unique neighborhood characteristics.

“We want to see less suburban development and more that is appropriately urban and fits into the existing fabric of the city,” Jastrzab said. “Our city has the capability of becoming a spectacular place on the East Coast.”

 

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