On the Philly Riverfront, a Question of Who Has Privileges to the Park

Should cities operate public parks for the private benefit of nearby neighbors? That seemed to be the question asked Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

Rendering of where Carl Dranoff’s 21-story apartment building would go.

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Should cities operate public parks for the private benefit of nearby neighbors?

That seemed to be the question asked Tuesday night in downtown Philadelphia, where members of the Center City Residents’ Association gathered to discuss a plan to build a luxury apartment tower on a small parcel of land between two public parks.

The project, developer Carl Dranoff’s One Riverside Park, would plunk a 21-story, 167-unit apartment building on what is now a surface parking lot between the Schuylkill River Park Community Garden and the Schuylkill Banks trail.

The reaction to this project from Philadelphia’s architecture and planning commentariat has been marked by cautious optimism. For many urbanists, slender mixed-use towers are the next logical piece in the waterfront restoration puzzle.

Like many cities, Philadelphia traditionally used its waterfront land for ports, heavy industry and, later on, highways. In recent years though, the city has joined many of its peers in casting off that gray legacy and reclaiming its waterfront for green recreation, housing and business uses.

As Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger put it at a recent Next City event, Philly planners have begun to prioritize “restoring and recovering our edges — our rivers and natural geographic assets.”

And they’re putting serious money behind the effort. As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron points out, city taxpayers recently spent $4.6 million on upgrading this park and connecting it to the Schuylkill Banks. A total of $60 million in federal, state and city money will be spent on the trail and greenway system. Consulting firm Econsult Solutions expects this public investment to serve as an economic engine for the waterfront area, and so far their projections seem to be materializing.

Land values are up across the Schuylkill waterfront, including Dranoff’s parcel. The 2014 land value for this lot is now nearly $1.3 million, up from $544,000:

This large jump reflects the recent reassessment — the first in decades — and not a one-year doubling in value. But whatever the growth rate, it’s pretty clear that public investment in the waterfront and population growth in Center City and Southwest Center City have had a positive impact on land values. You can also see it in this Econsult chart of house price growth in different Philadelphia neighborhoods:

As much as Team Dranoff wants to highlight the public value this project creates by pointing to a “new gateway” to the park, and the “opportunity to bookend the end of the urban experience,” the obvious reason to build is the profit opportunity.

And one key reason there is a profit opportunity here is that the taxpayers’ investment in a nice waterfront park and trail system created a land value windfall for nearby private landowners. This is a well-known side effect of public investment in parks: The surrounding private land becomes more valuable because lots of people would like to live next to a park, but park-side land is scarce.

But why should it be scarce? As Dranoff showed last night, we have the ability to create a lot more park-side housing — in the air. If other developers follow his lead, dense high-rises á la One Riverside Park could allow thousands of more people to live next to these pubic assets along the Schuylkill.

Not everyone, though, is happy about reducing the scarcity of park-side housing. Of the 25 residents who delivered a public comment about the project, all but three opposed the building. Among the opponents, all but one lived within a few blocks of the lot.

Some were worried the glass building materials might cook the community garden next door like an ant under a magnifying glass, an issue Saffron raised in her column. But Cecil Baker, the building’s architect, said that the area in front of the garden will be only 50 percent glass, with metal panels and recessed windows. The panels will be opaque and the glass much less shiny. Baker said he was aware of the example of buildings in Dallas and Las Vegas, and promised to take appropriate precautions toward sunlight.

Other complaints echoed the familiar concerns neighbors trot out whenever any tall infill building is proposed. Some people worried about a parking shortage (not very likely in a city with shrinking car dependency) and others about shadows, garbage odors and obstructed views. The developers said they are making an explicit effort not to obstruct views, describing a thin building running east and west that squarely faces the 25th Street park entrance rather than the front of properties.

Some of the more outlandish complaints included the fear that the building would deplete the park of “spirituality”; the fear that visitors might be assaulted walking from the park to faraway parking spaces; and the fear that the increased car traffic would lead to children being run over by cars (sentences later, the same speaker called for more parking capacity.) No one suggested raising parking meter prices or residential permit prices to manage parking demand better.

Some residents leading the opposition floated a plan to rezone Darnoff’s land for recreational use and swapping it for a city-owned parcel far away from the riverfront, perhaps at Broad Street and Washington Avenue. (More land for recreation was a top priority of the non-binding 2009 CCRA Neighborhood Plan). They claimed this swap would not result in lost tax revenue, even though it assumes the designation of a new recreational-use city-owned parcel. In fact, the cost to the city’s tax base of not building tall buildings on both the riverfront and Broad and Washington (close to the Ellsworth-Federal station on the Broad Street subway line) would be large.

Philadelphia’s 10-year property tax abatement severs the crucial political link between new construction and tax base growth, but just because there’s a 10-year lag doesn’t mean taxpayers won’t see the revenue. Other 20-story buildings around the city contribute somewhere between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year in property taxes — many times more than the $17,016 Dranoff’s surface parking lot will contribute to the tax rolls in 2013, or the zero dollars more park land would contribute.

Now that taxpayers have made a large investment in improvements to the waterfront land, and area land values are rising, there is a clear citywide interest in converting those values into more new private residential investment on the waterfront. Encouraging residential construction is how the city will recoup its investment in the waterfront park improvements.

And from the perspective of distributional politics, there is a clear equity interest in increasing the number of people who can live next to public amenities like a waterfront park. Building more housing units will help keep park-side rents more affordable and reduce the displacement of middle-class people from the neighborhood as demand for waterfront housing grows.

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Jonathan Geeting is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, where he writes about land use and public space politics. His work appears at Next City, This Old City and Keystone Politics.

Tags: philadelphiaeconomic developmentbuilt environmentarchitecturewaterfronts

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