Monday, June 23, 2008

Philadelphia urban planning

Urban planning has been in the news a lot lately in Philadelphia because of a combination of its sudden trendiness, high gas prices revitalizing urban cores, and its new mayor. Here's a recap of planning news during the last few days in the City of Brotherly Love:

  • Dense buildings are hot in Philadelphia – just this month the largest skyscraper in the city opened, and this week plans were announced to top that record by 50%. The tower at 18th and Arch would be 1,500 feet high, while taking up half the space as the current tallest building in the city. As usual, neighbors are complaining, despite the fact that the site is well within Philadelphia's central business district. The neighbors are worried about reduced availability of parking since the site is being built on a parking spot, though they don't seem to care that market forces dictated (with the caveat that no land use is truly market-based in America) that that plot of land be turned into high-density office (and perhaps residential?) space.
  • One of Philadelphia's very successful "edge cities," King of Prussia, has finally been fully developed, but the last development is a decidedly anti-exurban "new urbanism" type project. Though the area doesn't have any hope to be connected to rail any time soon, the project does aim to create the walkable, urban-looking core than KoP never had. The area became popular when big government-style planning conspired to run three major highways through the town in the '50s, and its place was confirmed when big government-style Cold War military spending was directed at the town, where weapons contractor GE poured money into the town in the '60s. And of course no story about the suburbs would ever be complete with an anecdote about WWII veterans building houses in the area, financed by subsidized mortgages through the GI bill. The article doesn't mention whether or not government officials prodded developers into building this sort of project, but it seems unlikely given that the NIMBY forces were too busy decrying the development of the golf course, which some apparently thought counted as the last bit of undeveloped land in the area. It took a specific PA Supreme Court ruling to protect owners of golf courses from zoning that would proscribe further development of their property.
  • The Delaware River waterfront – a centrally-located but poorly-developed area of Philadelphia – is probably going to be rezoned and developed in the near future. One of the big debates is whether or not to allow slot machine gambling on the riverfront. Many people are against the idea, especially in light of the fact that the casinos would have huge parking lots and would not adhere to the urban image that Philadelphia is trying to cultivate. While at first my libertarian instincts say to allow the development, on second thought I wonder if the profitability of the casino there isn't due only to restrictions on casinos elsewhere. If casinos were allowed to be built throughout the region, would the most profitable location for them really be on high-value riverfront property?

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