Monday, June 14, 2010

Planning to Bring the Bacon Home, and Other Bad Puns

Scott Gabriel Knowles (ed). Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

In 1959, Philadelphia City Planning Commission Director Edmund Bacon predicted Philadelphia would host the 1976 World’s Fair as a shining example of urban revitalization. What happened was the city declined economically.

Bacon foresaw underground streets, moving sidewalks, thriving factories, regional parks in the suburbs, and no more billboards. He admits he was guessing as no one in 1959 could foretell the future. Still, his vision gave a direction that with much compromising and submission to realities led to what Philadelphia has become.

Bacon was skilled as a planner and architect. He was not a political strategist and never obtained the political power that Robert Moses obtained in directing New York’s public projects. Bacon did have a long career of involvement in Philadelphia’s development over several decades, unlike most other city planners. Bacon influenced many Mayors and decision makers.

Bacon foresaw the city’s universities becoming focal points for renewed housing around them. He hoped that city blight would cease to exist. He foresaw purchase of development rights programs to direct excess development while preserving county lands as the program directed.

Gregory L, Heller notes that Bacon began working on Flint, Michigan transportation and parking issues in 1938. Bacon also advocated for creating professional city planning staffs. While working on a $3.5 million Federal housing project, the city Housing Commission saw its funding slashed due to efforts of private developers who feared that accepting the funds and building the housing project would reduce their profits. Bacon fought to put acceptance of the Federal funds on the ballot. By a 2 to 1 margin, the voters rejected accepting the Federal funds. From this, Bacon learned “city planning is a combination of social input as well as design”.

Walter Phillips, Sr., a Philadelphia civic leader, convinced Bacon to move to Philadelphia, which had no city planning. Philadelphia has a City Planning Commission which was widely ignored. Phillips and Bacon worked to create an updated Planning Commission. They appealed to the public and City Council creared the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC).

The PCPA wrote a new city charter. It used Federal funds to redevelop the East Poplar, Southwest Temple, and Mill Creek neighborhoods. Louis Kahn helped develop scale redevelopment plans with sidewalks and historic building preservation.

The Redevelopment Authority in 1949 proposed relocating to Eastwick people whose homes were torn down for slum removal. Bacon opposed creating a totally poor section of town, yet the project moved forward. Bacon worked to create a good physical design. Efforts at racial segregation in Eastwick were slight. The RCA focused on integrating transitional areas and opposed scattered site housing.

Bacon helped remove a railroad wall that was blocking the expansion of development. Penn Center was developed in its place with a combination of offices, commercial sites, and open air walkways.

Bacon sought row homes and downtown transportation options along with preserving streams for the Far Northeast. The residents wanted single family homes. Bacon’s zoning plans were adopted. Today, though, the Far Northeast is reliant on cars and not mass transit as Bacon desired. It resembles the suburbs more than the urban row houses Bacon hoped to see throughout the city.

In 1949, Society Hill was a mostly working class neighborhood with many tenement housing. Bacon sought to expand walkways into Society Hill, engage in historic preservation efforts, and mix housing with museums to induce middle class residents to move into Society Hill. Mayor Richardson Dilworth was supportive of Bacon’s ideas to revitalized Society Hill. The Old Philadelphia Development Corporation was established as a neighborhood developer. It was then rate for a city to combine slum removal with historic preservation. There was no comparable Federal funding mechanism. In 1959, the U.S. Urban Renewal Administration was among the architects of this project. The project did destroy several 19th century structures and displaced people. It did successfully attract many middle class people to live there.

Bacon felt comprehensive planning was “busy work” and often ignored it.

Bacon felt racial discrimination should be addressed in planning. He sought to hire African American planners. Bacon helped create the nation’s first scattered site housing program. The program would cease in 1970 due to lack of funds, legalities, and administrative abuse.

Mayor James Tate made Bacon the city’s Development Coordinator as well as Planning Director. Bacon wanted to move the city away from automobile use yet he also loyally never spoke out publically against a Mayor. He supported plans for crosstown expressways until Mayor Tate came out against them.

Bacon resigned as Planning Director in 1970 during controversy over alleged graft in downtown development. Bacon was not accused of anything illegal.

Bacon would later oppose allowing skyscrapers being built in Philadelphia, arguing that City Hall should always be the city’s tallest building. He lost this fight.

Bacon did not have the power as did his contemporaries Robert Moses or Ed Logue. He did have access to power and he knew how to use his specialized planning skills to influence those who had power, such as Mayors and the media.

Guinan McKee notes that Professor Paul Davidoff argued in 1965 that Bacon’s plans did not adequately meet public needs. Davidoff was also crucial that Bacon’s plans were political decisions with little public input. McKee also believes history has given Bacon a larger role in Philadelphia’s planning than he actually had. Bacon worked in concert with many others. William Rafferty avoided the public spotlight yet also was a key planning advisor who often fought with Bacon. Rafsky was an advocate of Americans for Democratic Action reforms that were generally embraced by Mayor Joseph Clark. Bacon had less influence with Mayor Clark, who listened more to Rafsky.

Bacon was more concerned with planning design than he was with socioeconomic improvements, according to McKee. Bacon seemed neglectful of planning in some poorer neighborhoods, such as North Philadelphia.

Rafksy noted in the 1950s that Philadelphia required $1 billion to remove its blighted areas. It only had $45 million to do so. Rafsky feared small scale efforts could even be harmful as they could cause areas around removed blight to deteriorate if new development was too slow to move in.

A large portion of urban removal’s policies were focused on Center City development. Bacon initially opposed this.

It is noted that most planning projects during Bacon’ s period involved the private sector. Thus, businesses had sizable influences over projects. Private sector input was often stronger than any input from the poor.

Walter Phillips advanced public private partnerships that would create more industry. Philadelphia was losing its industrial base. Bacon preferred either fully publicly owned land for industrial projects, or to have the land sold to the private sector in competitive bidding. Bacon saw stabilizing housing problems as the key to Philadelphia’s economic future. Phillips wanted more direct economic action.

McKee believes Bacon was wrong to allow an elevated highway to be constructed. McKee believe Bacon, who was expert on design issues, failed to see that design decision could destroy communities as well as improve them.

Scott Gabriel Knowles argues that Bacon focused too much on create a national exhibition in Philadelphia in 1976. Bacon was inspired by Philadelphia’s national exhibition in 1876. Philadelphia, though, faced greater challenges with its economic decline. A fair involves much investment and it often a part of a host city’s economic revitalization plans. Bacon envisioned complex projects that new happened. Thus, the bicentennial fair never happened.

Bacon advanced ideas for the fair yet did little to plan for their existence. Bacon proposed created cable cars across the Schuylkill River and created electric trains along Chestnut Street. Councilman John B. Kelly was placed in charge of the fair. Criticisms of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York made many believe the idea of national fairs had passed. Meanwhile, Mayor Tate’s attention was divided with his desire to bring the 1972 Olympics to Philadelphia. Tate’s opponent for Mayor in 1967, Arlen Specter, questioned spending on the fair. While Tate was reelected, Specter’s criticisms remained fresh in the public’s mind. The costs of the proposed fair, with some estimating a billion dollars of cost, created further public backlash. Several leading advocates for more resources being placed into improving poorer, mostly African American neighborhoods, objected to the fair’s costs. The newly elected Mayor Frank Rizzo was critical and while be favored Eastwick as a fair site, the Eastwick idea fell though as unworkable. Rizzo then abandoned further fair planning, to the outrage of Bacon.

Harris M. Steinberg notes the difficulties Bacon or anyone has in predicting the future. Bacon may or may not have realized his predictions were made just before Philadelphia would face a declining economy.

Bacon worked on creating Independence Hall Park. Professor Anthony Garvan of the University of Pennsylvania was critical that many historic buildings were destroyed to create a historic park.

City planning decreased its influence on city government decision making once Bacon left. The public distrusted large public planning. The private sector gained in influence. Bog box stores and casinos became part of the reality. There was little coordinate planning on economic development, transportation, pedestrian walkways, and storm water management under Mayors Ed Rendell and John Street. The Zoning Board was led by someone with no background in planning or design.

Philadelphia in 2009 found itself with racial challenges, tax difficulties, disparate construction costs with suburban constructions, education challenges causing residents to leave the city, a relatively less education city compared to other cities, etc. Philadelphia lacks the regional cooperation that many other cities enjoy. Philadelphia is a leader in higher education and health care institutions, has a decent if troubled public transportation system, and has urban parks and open spaces.


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