by Grant Moser
Harris Steinberg, 56, is a “local boy.” He grew up in Wyndmoor, lives in Mt. Airy and attended the University of Pennsylvania for both undergraduate and graduate school. For the past two decades, he has been helping to shape the Philadelphia area that he calls home — how we think about it, use it and what its future will be — simply by speaking up. It seems that when he asks a question, someone puts him in charge of creating the answer.
In 1993, he had a private architectural practice in Mt. Airy and became involved with the Business Association of Mt. Airy. He went to his first meeting and spoke about how great Germantown Avenue was as a main street and how other towns around the country were trying to copy this exact feel. He urged the group to start restoring it and celebrating it. The group elected him president.
Steinberg took to his new role and organized clean-up days and town meetings, which attracted the attention of State Senator Allyson Schwartz (now a Congresswoman and candidate for Governor). With her help, he found funds to begin an economic development plan for the area.
“I learned through the school of hard knocks,” he explained. “I made a lot of mistakes, but I also learned that the skills I brought from my architecture background transferred well to organizing a public dialogue. We are meant to be facilitators. It’s about figuring out how to move a community forward with a broad consensus. I got a graduate education in community organizing and civic engagement during that time.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 3 p.m., in Morris’ Widener Visitor Center, he gets to speak about his vision for Philadelphia as part of Morris Arboretum’s Connections Beyond Our Garden series, when he presents “More Park, Less Way and Other Urban Design Visions.” Steinberg will provide an overview of projects he has worked on that are “positioning Philadelphia to be competitive in the 21st century.”
In his role as founding director of PennPraxis, he has been part of more than 60 such projects, including the re-envisioning of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Central Delaware Riverfront and the Philadelphia Park System. PennPraxis was the brainchild of Steinberg and then-Dean of the School of Design at Penn, Gary Hack, who saw a chance for Penn Design faculty and students to work on projects in the real world. The two men started the project in 1998, and in 2001 it became a nonprofit. Hack asked Steinberg to run it.
“The local projects, many of which are funded by the William Penn Foundation, have to do with unlocking the potential of our legacy assets that have been forgotten, underutilized, disconnected or just not thought of as important for the future,” said Steinberg. After he began running PennPraxis in 2002, Simon Property Group, the world’s largest developer of shopping malls, pulled out of their proposal to develop Penn’s Landing.
Steinberg asked Hack if PennPraxis could help shape a conversation about the future of the site. Along with Chris Satullo, then-editorial board editor at The Inquirer (and Chestnut Hill resident), and Harris Sokoloff, faculty director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, he put together Penn’s Landing Forums in January, 2003, to let the public have a voice.
This simple contribution set the stage for PennPraxis’ leadership role in planning for the entire Central Delaware Waterfront. A few years later, the organization was asked to lead a public planning process for the 6.5-mile stretch of waterfront from Oregon Avenue to Allegheny Avenue.
For decades the waterfront had been eyed as a place ripe for development, but through a combination of economics, timing, graft, corruption and even near-bankruptcy of the city, nothing happened except for the placement of Interstate 95. However, early in this century, several projects were being planned but with no overarching guide to follow, no weighing the impact on adjacent neighborhoods, traffic or even storm water run-off. To top it off, the state had mandated casino gambling in Philadelphia.
Steinberg and PennPraxis were tasked by Mayor Street to develop long-term, big-picture recommendations for the future of the waterfront, funded by the William Penn Foundation. “The charge was to … create a vision based on civic input and best planning practices that would balance public space, public access and private development,” explained Steinberg. “This was about connecting the city back to the waterfront.”
Using local press coverage, a website to chronicle the process, the participation of 15 civic associations and numerous public meetings, they ultimately put together recommendations that are now being followed to develop the waterfront. This plan was called the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware and is the foundation for current and future development, putting the emphasis on public space.
The Civic Vision is meant to guide all future waterfront development; early actions have included restoring the Race Street Pier to a public space and beginning a trail system along the waterfront. The William Penn Foundation remains committed to the project and has just given another $5 million to fund it.
According to Steinberg, “If we can get the education piece fixed, Philly has it in spades over a lot of other cities in quality of life, housing stock, affordability, public space and parks. Chestnut Hill is in many ways a shining example of a village within a city, an incredible environment of the integration of the man-made and the natural that is unsurpassed. I haven’t seen any place in this country, let alone Europe, that comes close to that natural beauty and integration of the two so close to a central city. Philly is an amazing city, and people are rediscovering that.”
For more information about the lecture series, please visit visit www.morrisarboretum.org, click on “education,” then “lectures.” For more information about PennPraxis, please visit www.design.upenn.edu/pennpraxis.