Photo: Next American City Magazine
With the dog days of summer upon us and no August monthly meeting of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, PlanPhilly sat down last Friday, August 21, with Executive Director Alan Greenberger to catch up on some of the issues he’s dealt with during what will soon be a year on the job.
Or perhaps “jobs” is the better word. The year has been more than Greenberger bargained for. He took on the title of “acting deputy mayor” for planning and economic development – and the responsibility for the city’s Commerce Department in addition to his own department – after the unexpected departure of former Deputy Mayor Andy Altman in June. And, of course, he took over the reins just as the worst financial meltdown in American history was in full throttle, affecting everything from the city budget to the very development projects that he, his staff and commissioners were considering.
At one point, asked how many meetings a week he attends, Greenberger offered an instant “day in the life” scenario, checking his handheld to see what occupied him on Wednesday, August 19. It was a day he characterized as “medium” busy (and on which he was supposed to have jury duty – postponed on account of his working the equivalent of at least two city jobs).
First, a meeting at City Hall with the Nutter administration’s core cabinet (9 a.m. to 10:30) was followed by an hour-long meeting with business people about the regional tech sector, until noon. Then lunch – a hotdog while walking back to his office. He had some business at City Hall, after which he was picked up by Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. President Peter Longstreth at 1 p.m., for business at the Navy Yard. He returned to the Planning Commission at 3, and then it was off to the weekly economic development cabinet meeting. At 4:30 he got back to his office to return a couple of phone calls. He left at 7.
We spoke about the role of the Planning Commission (what it is, what it is not), his relationship with developers, and of course, casinos. The media, too, and how tough it is to get things done in the public world versus the private sector, where he toiled as an architect (Greenberger resigned as a partner at MGA Partners Architects when he took on his executive director position; he had been with the firm for 35 years). He also outlined an ambitious “integrated planning process” that will be introduced later this fall, which will meld planning with the ongoing work of the Zoning Code Commission.
The interview took place in Greenberger’s office on the 13th floor of One Parkway, and lasted more than 90 minutes. Most of the interview is below, but has necessarily been condensed and edited. Edits were made for repetition and clarity – and (most) small talk was cut. A couple topics were omitted, but his remarks on those subjects will appear in a forthcoming story.
We started with the current city budget nightmare on staffing levels at the Planning Commission and the Commerce Department, irrespective of the “Plan C” option outlined by Mayor Nutter last week, in which the entire 39-member Planning Commission would cease operations.
Thomas J. Walsh: Was it six staffers that were to be let go?
Alan Greenberger: Well, unfilled positions. We didn’t do any more layoffs in this last round because we have these unfilled positions. Somehow that’s been characterized as a bad thing. ... Our capacity is diminished, but we’ve managed not to lay anybody off. ... This next round – and hopefully there won’t be a next round – there’ll be bodies all over the place.
TJW: How about with Commerce – absent Plan C, are there any layoffs or unfilled positions there?
AG: There are some ongoing unfilled positions at Commerce, too, that was part of the contribution to the last round.
TJW: Enough to affect economic development, short-term?
AG: It depends on how much you think you can cover, with those that are left. And, you know, at some levels, it can be covered. I suppose someone could say, ‘How am I supposed to cover being Commerce director and the Planning director and the deputy mayor?,’ and it’s a fair question. I’m finding my way through. I work very hard – that’s one version of it, but I can’t cover all bases. I have good people working with me here, and we sort of have to shuffle how the bases get covered. The bases will, inevitably, not all get covered, but I think as you go deeper into the system, you simply wind up, truly, with diminished capacity, and an inability to do whatever it is you were doing before.
TJW: So there’s no answer as to when [former Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] Andy Altman’s replacement will be hired, or whether it’ll be one person or two?
AG: No. There’s been no decision on anything. It’s on hold, and given what’s going on at the moment, it deserves to be on hold.
TJW: We, the media?
AG: Yeah, and this isn’t ‘blame the media.’ But you transmit – you’re there watching what the public sector does. You transmit information about what the public sector does to the public. Sometimes you do it in a sort of very reporting method, and other journalists do it in a more interpretive method. It varies from person to person and from media organ to media organ. Some are more editorially based and others are more factually based – or at least make an attempt at it. It’s hard to do either way, actually. And then that information goes out to the public and the public feeds back their response directly to us, and also through the media. So you put yourself out there and you’re available for being criticized all day, on everything.
TJW: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?
AG: There’s a certain amount of ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ You have to make decisions. You’re inevitably criticized for those decisions. And that is different from what goes on in the private sector for sure (laughs). In the private sector you get to say, ‘Look, this is what we’re gonna do,’ and that might get criticized within the circle of impact of that decision, but basically everybody says, ‘OK, that’s what we’re gonna do.’
TJW: And this is where developers have their central dilemma, right? They are private unless they’re [real estate investment trusts], but they do run up against this very public aspect of their work.
AG: Yes, and they’re terrified of it because they see the kind of ... (paused). These are business people. Most business people like to get things done quietly and efficiently, and sort of get on with business, so to speak. The idea that they would have to subject themselves, as these developers do, to a very public process, including an immense amount of public criticism – questioning their motives, oftentimes questioning their values. It’s painful for a lot of them and they develop either very thick skins about it, or they walk away and say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’
TJW: It colors everything.
AG: It does color everything, so they’re kind of on hold. Since nothing is going to happen anyway, they’re sort of, I think, probably for many of them, they’re saying, ‘Alright, this master plan’s gonna happen, so ... we’ll see what happens?’
TJW: Do you think that any of them – whether they be a big company like Conrail or a small independent owner ... [have a mindset of,] ‘Let’s not waste this crisis’?
AG: Relative to what?
TJW: Relative to not working with the city. I’m thinking about all the concerns voiced by [Development Workshop Inc. Executive Director] Craig Schelter or [real estate attorney] Michael Sklaroff, wherein their clients’ private property rights are seen as, perhaps, being trampled on a little, with this process between the city and PennPraxis?
AG: Well we heard the arguments from Michael and Craig – I don’t think people’s property rights are being trampled. Obviously, they have points to make, but meanwhile the [overlay district] ordinance has passed; I don’t think it’s unreasonable to require at least the reservation of land for possible public access. I think there’s a lot of details to work out, but I think the big one is, yeah, put it in context of a plan. I truly feel that there’s less here to be feared than at least what was a little bit expressed during the zoning episode.
TJW: Do you think that’s blown over a little bit?
AG: Oh, yeah.
TJW: Craig has had a job in this office [Planning Commission executive director], was with PIDC...
AG: He was an executive director [with PIDC].
TJW: Now he’s representing many of these developers. Do you speak with him much now, and do you believe he’s playing a constructive role in the process?
AG: I think he does play a constructive role. I’ve known Craig for years, and he was an active participant in DAG [Design Advocacy Group] when I was part of that, and I think we forged a kind of professional relationship – and actually before that on the Foundation For Architecture board… People like Craig, and actually Michael Sklaroff too, are an essential part of the ongoing dialogue. Disagreeing with them is different from sort of resenting their presence. (Laughter.) I welcome their presence because I think that they voice real concerns that are out there and need to be acknowledged within the system. I may not agree with what they say, but also in the end you have to find a way to work together. They’re out there representing some of the property owners – certainly not all of them – and the Development Workshop represents real interests in Philadelphia that need to be cultivated. Mind you, this is not a thing where people ought to think there are simply sides to be taken – that you’re on one side or the other. This is a big city with a big, dynamic economy, and we all have to figure out a way to make this work, together. One of the things I have found myself saying – and I know Craig is aware of this – for instance with discussions about this 2116 [Chestnut Street, Hillman Center] project – is convening groups of community members who live, or whose institutions [are nearby], and saying to them, ‘Listen, you need to understand the reality of development, too.’
The world is not about evil developers with black hats and wax moustaches or something, stealing things from everybody. It’s not what life’s about. Development is a risky business – and in this city, with very thin margins of return. So, what I’ve said to them for example is, ‘A standard developer’s business sheet on a project is going to include an assumption about profit.’ A standard fee proposal from an architect includes an assumption about profit.
TJW: You’ve got to make a living.
AG: That is the theory. And the truth about architecture is that that profit is often whittled away to hardly anything, and part of the reason that you project it is that you have a cushion. Well, developers do the same thing, and they know they need cushions, and if they can make the kind of money they project, that’s nice, we’re thrilled. But things happen. Things happen all the time, and in a certain way… it doesn’t matter what profit margin they project. It doesn’t matter.
TJW: Why do you say that?
AG: It doesn’t matter because in the big world of development, the only thing that matters is whether the business sheet looks compelling enough to be financeable. Since developers in general are not financing things with their own money, they’re looking for financing, whether it’s a bank or an insurance fund or a [state] teachers’ retirement [fund] or an individual, or somebody – usually many somebodies – are financing projects. Those financing agents look at a business sheet and say, ‘good investment’ or ‘bad investment.’ It’s either financeable or not.
I think development is very tough in this city – it’s extremely tough.
TJW: What can be done to change it?
AG: There are several things. Certainly the critical thing is make the economy better. There are some things in our control and some things that’ll take a little longer term. We need to rationalize the process of development. Developers have been critical of the city for having a fairly complex process – there’s some fairness in the criticism, I think. There are possibly too many people looking at similar things. We need to organize that better and we’re in the process of doing that.
TJW: What, exactly?
TJW: So the ‘information-only’ session, which is fairly new... is that an attempt to deal with these kinds of questions that I’m asking, so that a project in the abstract can be put forward?
AG: Yeah, and we do it only with major projects. Because, the other unfairness to the commissioners – and to the public, too – is that, OK, you put a big project out there, they’ve never seen it, never been briefed on it. They haven’t been working on it with developers the way we have. Anything put out there that has some complexity, it inevitably has some major issues with it. You say, ‘OK, you’ve seen a presentation for 20 minutes, you’ve discussed it for five minutes, you heard people, usually, complaining about it, you’ve heard developers tell you why it’s a good thing and people tell you it’s a bad thing: Now decide.’ It’s not fair – these issues are more complex than that. So we decided that a smart way to do this was in information-only, so they get to see something and have basically a month or more to let it sink in.
TJW: This ‘absorption period’ that you’ve spoken of?
AG: Just to reflect on it. It also gives us an opportunity to hear from members of the public, in a public forum. So, anything from genuine concern to grandstanding, from informed opinions to pretty weird opinions, occasionally.
TJW: That’s the case sometimes, especially when anything related to casinos comes before you, but I’ve also noticed that some of the information-only presentations themselves have gone on for really long periods of time.
AG: Well this is the one where you want to get it all out. ... I think it’s working very well. I think commissioners feel more secure about what they’re being asked to vote on when it’s a major project.
TJW: In between these information-only sessions and the time a developer might come back to you, perhaps for an approval of some sort, is there further communication?
AG: Not generally between ourselves [staff] and the commissioners.
TJW: Between the commissioners and the developers?
AG: Seldom. [The commissioners] are there to do a very specific job. It’s like a board. Some boards are very board-driven and some are very staff-driven. This is a very staff-driven operation, as would be normal for a planning commission. Their job is to be there and be a sort of check and balance on the staff. Without the information-only sessions, they would be making judgment calls generally with regard to what the staff has said without an opportunity to think about it themselves. In some ways it would be more unfair to the public, and probably be seen more as some kind of fix.
TJW: Just overall, is there anything new on the American Commerce Center?
AG: Well they have signs down there on the site. The gig is that they need to find a lead tenant for this office building. ...
Here’s the other thing I wanted to say about the economics of projects that does affect planning. In the past, a lot of developers would come to the Planning Commission and ask basically for relief from zoning that limited the amount of facility that they could do – that’s pretty much the most common thing. ... There might be a rationale for it, there might not. What Andy and I got concerned about, if there was rationale or not, was that if they were granted that increase, they could turn around and flip properties, having just been given a major asset – we just increased the value of the property by ‘x’ amount. What did the city get for it? So we started talking about that, and said we shouldn’t allow that to happen. That’s giving out the candy and we’re not getting anything for it. What we said was, ‘Here’s what we want in return: a promise that, if we think it makes sense to give you the density, we want the assurance that you’re actually going to do it. Because our willingness to give you the density was predicated upon a particular approach to a site – a set of uses, a design or at least a design approach, and this is what led to the plan-of-development , and the insistence that the thing sunsets itself after a period of time.’ Now, we’re feeling pretty OK about extending that period of time in this economic environment when so little is happening.
TJW: Do you foresee more extensions like that in the coming six months or so, such as the Stamper Square project?
AG: Well we’ve already done it for Stamper Square.
TJW: Right, but would you again – a second extension?
AG: At some point, one’s patience wears out. And you have to weigh it against what the economy in general is doing. If Stamper Square is still hanging around there, not doing anything, but the rest of the economy is moving ahead, then clearly the problem is not the economy, it’s them, and that’s when you start losing your willingness to be sympathetic.
Projects: On simmer
TJW: I have a bunch of projects here I wanted to get updates on – the Hillman Center at 21st and Chestnut, the Southport Marine Terminal, the Monaco Hotel that would be at the refurbished Boyd Theatre – stop me if there’s any news on any of these.
TJW: Bart Blatstein at Broad and Spring Garden? David Grasso at 16th and Vine?
TJW: Cira Centre South?
TJW: To the lay person, what is the difference between re-zoning and re-mapping?
AG: They are the same thing, fundamentally. [With the zoning code,] all it is, is the rules. The re-mapping is how they apply to you. That’s where the rubber’s going to meet the road. We think, our hunch, is that the heart of the re-mapping is going to look at certain topics. Among them will be transit-oriented development – meaning a baseline belief that we should be able to accommodate more mixed-use and more density around transit nodes.
We’re [also] going to be needing to look at commercial corridors, because in this city, where over a 50-year period we lost 25 percent of the population, neighborhood commercial corridors tend to be too long, with scattered vacancy, and they probably need to be tighter. A three-block, no-vacancy commercial corridor is better than a six-block commercial corridor with lots of vacancies – just fundamentally better. Zoning could help move that arrow and help direct that. It’ll be over a period of time, nobody’s going to be put out of business – ideally you’d have to have grandfathering. ... We have too much unproductive commercial area that needs to be better.
TJW: And I know industrial lands have been at the forefront of what you’ve been looking at.
AG: The third thing is industrial, yes. We’ve got to look at the land that is just out-and-out obsolete zoning. Most of it is industrial. The industrial land use report that they’re putting out at the [Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.] is really starting to identify which areas of the city that had robust industry and is now not so robust, and that we’ve got to ... push to transition.
TJW: So the priorities for the Planning Commission in the coming year are obvious – they’ve already been set in motion by the Zoning Code Commission?
TJW: And to bring that code to fruition, you have to re-map, and you have to have a plan to re-map.
AG: Right. And that’s a process that has to be integrated with a strategic look at the whole city, looking at districts of the city, and with the ongoing flow of the re-write of the rule book itself. And so we’ve developed this integrated idea, a timeframe and a way that the pieces all connect, that we want to bring in front of our commission.
TJW: When should we expect to see that?
AG: Probably October. The only thing we have to do is figure out how to pay for this.
TJW: That’s all, huh?
AG: We’ve got some ideas that we’re exploring. We’re meeting with some acceptance of our ideas, but we have to put them into effect, and right now ... discussions are just on hold. But I think that’s going to be a big deal for us, because that’s really what I came to this job to do. Ultimately, the headline is, ‘City embarks on first comprehensive plan in 50 years.’
TJW: You were in private practice for 35 years – is that something that you really saw as a barrier to proper development and proper planning over the years as an architect?
AG: Yeah, I think they’re barriers. ... A city that has not updated itself, has not allowed itself the benefit of deep, long-term thinking – we suffer from that. We suffer economically, and as a competitive economic entity. It ties to quality of life. [Deputy Mayor of Parks and Recreation] Michael DiBerardinis and I have had a lot of conversations about public open space in the city and we’re very much on the same wavelength about how that interrelates with economic development and planning in the city. So like I said, this is what I came to do.
TJW: What can we expect in terms of the Design Review Board, which was proposed earlier this year?
AG: It’s totally on me. It’s purely me being distracted by a lot of other things. I’ve got to get that back on the agenda.
TJW: Well, Alan, thank you very much.