Sunday, August 25, 2013

From Chestnut Street to the Water: Poor Planning recently posted Stu Bykofsky's article gushing about a city planner who's assisted in some of Center City's most irreparable damage. And unlike Ed Bacon - who once proposed tearing down City Hall to make way for a giant traffic circle - Ross Brightwell's bright ideas came to fruition in an era when we all should have known better.

Ross Brightwell was a management consultant for the Chestnut Street Association in the late 1980's, planning the redevelopment of the Chestnut Street Business District. Assisting Ron Rubin (who's disregard for the "bricks" inadvertently created Philly Bricks, and gave us The Gallery at Market East and the Disney Hole), this "fountain of creativity" upped the district's taxes and created the thriving business, retail, and residential corridor that is our now successful Chestnut Street.

According to Stu Bykofsky's article, he helped save Center City.

Well let's back up. Where does Center City succeed? It succeeds on Walnut Street, Society Hill, Rittenhouse Square, University City.

Wherever Brightwell employed his "fountain of creativity" is an utter disaster. Where Chestnut Street succeeds is where, in very recent years, the success of Walnut Street has spilled over to Chestnut's deplorable infrastructure and bargain basement rent.

Brightwell is creative. Ed Bacon was a creative visionary as well. But the visions they shared gave us blocks of cold Soviet era concrete, inflated taxes to improve the sidewalks no one used, and at one point, blocked Chestnut to traffic and saw a street of Jetsonian pods carrying shoppers that didn't exist down a corridor with no business.

This didn't happen.

Basically, Brightwell is a utopian visionary. He comes from an era when Philadelphia, and most major cities, were struggling. Rather than wait out the slump, they poured huge sums of money into infrastructure improvements, and the assumption that the reason businesses were avoiding Center City had something to do with our sidewalks and traffic and nothing to do with the fact that the city had just lost the population of Atlanta.

Instead of adhering to the principle that has revived every successful post-industrial city in America, that new residents bring business, and new business affords us the luxury to plant trees, build plazas, and lay down brick sidewalks, the mid-century visionaries practiced the idea that "if you build it they will come."

We've learned from our mistakes, and by the time Brightwell was managing Chestnut Street in 1987, he could have looked at Market East and seen the scars of poor urban planning. Instead he charged full speed into the brick wall of reason insisting the mistakes of Ed Bacon could work.

The fallacy in this vision is evident in the success of Walnut Street. Our most diverse business corridor was a largely organic. The city fussed with Market and Chestnut because they were closest to our core. Walnut was ignored, and while it suffered the same lack of business throughout the 70's and 80's, it came around in the 90's because it hadn't been touched.

Now it's so successful that the boutiques that helped put it on the map are moving to Chestnut Street because they're being out priced by high volume retailers that have recognized how successful it is.

If Brightwell had done his job and his model worked, his domain wouldn't be the refuge for businesses struggling to make rent, it would be on national retailers' radars.

Lately he's been focusing his vision on the alleged I-95 debacle, a red herring for the Penn's Landing quagmire.

I-95 is an easy target. Sure, it was poor planning. The budget should have accounted for it to be capped. Hell, it should probably be in New Jersey.

But it is what it is, and the reason for that is that no one really cared about the waterfront or the industrial district it replaced at the time. It was the result of a lack of foresight from planners like Bacon, a lack of foresight Brightwell shares.

A good planner is more than an idealist and should have recognized a need for the built environment that I-95 replaced. Le Corbusier was a visionary and proposed leveling Paris for his Radiant City. They laughed, but Philadelphia did it.

City planners walk a fine line between architectural artistry and realistic business people with a respect for an organic infrastructure. Bacon and Brightwell lean towards the former.

As Brightwell envisions acres of real estate atop a buried interstate, capped with everything from an amphitheater to an aviary ferrying us to the water, he's ignoring what most of us ignore: Penn's Landing isn't a failure because we don't want to walk across eight lanes of elevated park space. It fails because it's a failure in and of itself.

On any given day hundreds of residents and tourists find their way to Penn's Landing. Locals ignore the poor museums and concrete, while tourists scratch their head and ask "why?"

Baltimore's waterfront doesn't succeed because it's not separated from the city by a highway. Inner Habor is disconnected from the city by a canyon, it's called Baltimore. It still succeeds because it's destination attractions are destinations.

If the National Aquarium was on Penn's Landing it would be surrounded by the same high rises, tourist malls, and street vendors that make Inner Harbor a lovely place to spend a day. Dumping millions of dollars into a concrete park over an interstate won't make Penn's Landing better, it will just get the same people to crap faster.

Brightwell envisions a cap over I-95 as a blank canvas for the city to work with while the city's had over 40 years to play with the canvas that is Penn's Landing, and it's still a disastrous money pit.

He sees I-95 as the space for the world's biggest merry-go-round and a roller coaster - which would be amazing - but why doesn't he see that on Penn's Landing?

I'd love to see high rise condos lining Delaware Avenue and sitting atop a capped I-95, but until developers are fighting over property that faces the river on solid ground, they aren't going to embark on the engineering feat of building anything on top of an interstate.

It's easy for us to see the river as an inaccessible pain and blame it on I-95. I do it all the time. But we aren't urban planners. An urban planner's job is to realistically assess the situation and recognize the fact that despite the interstate, we get to the river every day.

Give us something to do when we get there and maybe we'll have the means to cap the eyesore many of us have already come to terms with.


  1. I am Ross Brightwell. I just read your column. I am chuckling because I am to old to worry about my reputation but I do wish you would have got your facts right. I am pretty easy to find and we might have had an interesting discussion.

    1. Hi Ross. I can get carried away and I'm sure I was a bit unfair. Any info I got was from Stu Bykofsky's article. I can certainly take my post down if you'd like. I honestly didn't think anyone of note bothered reading my armchair rants.

    2. I hope you enjoy...