Is Philadelphia a “Livable” City?

Philadelphia and Montco’s own U.S. Representative Allyson Schwartz and fellow Congress member Earl Blumenauer of Oregon were at the Academy of Natural Sciences last night for a panel discussion on “Livable Communities and Philadelphia.”

Enlightening the legislators and audience about sustainable communities were Acting Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Alan Greenberger, John Gattuso from the developer Liberty Property Trust, Public Affairs Director Tony Sorrentino from the University of Pennsylvania and Shawn McCaney from the William Penn Foundation.

Each participant ranks as a heavyweight in his particular sector; public, private, institutional, and non-profit respectively.

What does a “livable” city mean, anyway? The usual: Good schools; jobs; vibrant, walkable commercial corridors. Better access to public transportation came up multiple times in the panel, as did continuing to develop the Schuylkill and Delaware waterfronts as green space.

Blumenauer is co-chair of the Congressional Livable Communities Task Force, and Schwartz also a member, so along with informing the audience as to how livable the city could be, the underlying theme of the panel was “give Philadelphia more federal dollars.”

Greenberger’s statements shed some light on why the city is perpetually broke. “This is a very old city with an aging infrastructure,” he said. “It is fantastically expensive to maintain.” The kicker: Philadelphia’s pipes, roads, and other utilities were planned to support a city of 2.5 million people, and the current tax base of 1.5 million just can’t  seem to make ends meet. Hello, 10% property tax hike.

The deputy mayor spoke on the need for the federal government to concentrate on metropolitan clusters and bypass the states when distributing funds. Hint, hint.

Gattuso brought the developer’s perspective to the table, telling about Liberty’s work to make LEED certified buildings not just to save energy but to provide higher quality workplaces. “We look at the impact buildings have on people and how they do their work,” he said, citing increased hours and productivity from people who enjoy their physical environment. Back to work, underlings.

Gattuso also made a plea for more federal assistance, citing as an example the proposal to extend the Broad Street Subway Line a half mile south past the sports complex. The project is estimated to cost $300 to $400 million, but would dramatically increase access to the Navy Yard and supposedly boost the density of businesses and jobs. Also, as the main Navy Yard developer Liberty Property would stand to make boatloads and boatloads of money.

Sorrentino covered the history of Penn’s involvement revitalizing the University City neighborhood through employee mortgage assistance and the creation of the Penn Alexander School, while McCaney briefly touched on the misalignment between federal and state funding in the region.

At the end of the panel, Blumenauer didn’t promise us the billions of dollars we were all hoping for, but did praise the city’s storm water approach—he called it “visionary,” props to PWD—and suggested that the funds were out there, just waiting to be snagged by cities with comprehensive plans. Cities like Philadelphia.

Even with filthy streets, bridges crumbling into oblivion and a perpetually bleak budget picture, the panel members remain optimistic about Philadelphia becoming ever more livable. Which we suppose beats the alternative.

“We can see the big picture coming into view,” McCaney said. “Cities that think they have a future plan for it.”

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