By Jeff Goldstein, FAIA, LEED AP
2022 AIA Philadelphia President and Principal at DIGSAU
With the 2022 Midterms still in our rearview mirror, Philadelphians have another important election in 2023 as we embark to elect the city’s 100th mayor. The 2023 lineup of mayoral candidates presents a crowded and diverse slate of candidates, each of whom brings a unique perspective to the position. AIA Philadelphia wishes to take this opportunity to challenge our mayoral candidates to address some critical, city-wide issues that contribute to the city’s success as a safe and thriving place to live, work, and play.
Our city needs your leadership. Our city represents, in physical form, our society’s ideals and values. As you know, Philadelphia is a city with a rich past and a bright future. Over its distinguished history, Philadelphia has proven its resilience as it adjusts to, and anticipates, the needs and wants of its citizens. We emerge from the pandemic in an age of disruption, innovation, and social reckoning. Our public spaces provided relief from quarantine, facilitated civil protests, and provided safe spaces to gather throughout these recent years. Our buildings – old and new – are adapting to new uses and new technologies. At the same time, those same spaces have been the backdrop to an escalation of gun violence and a growing population of unhoused people.
As is the case in many of our nation’s cities, Philadelphia is experiencing a housing crisis. A recent analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts notes, “Nationally, researchers have found that there are two distinct kinds of housing affordability issues in urban America: one primarily caused by high housing prices and the other a result of low income levels. In Philadelphia, the issue is more the latter than the former. Among the nation’s 10 most populous cities, none has a higher proportion of cost-burdened households with low incomes than Philadelphia. Despite Philadelphia’s relatively low housing costs, many of our residents lack the income to find housing they can afford. The city’s supply of low-cost units is inadequate to meet the needs of this large group of households, “there are nearly twice as many low-income renter households as housing units they can afford.” City Council has been attempting to address this problem through Inclusionary Zoning initiatives, which require any new residential buildings above a certain size to provide a percentage of those units for affordable housing. These new laws only apply to specific council districts and need to be incorporated into a larger, holistic approach that strikes the right balance between tax incentives, zoning relief, and density bonuses to make these needed laws more comprehensive and impactful. Threading this needle will only be possible with public support, which requires the mayor to facilitate an honest, ongoing dialogue with the city’s residents - our neighborhoods need to welcome and support affordable housing development. Only mayoral leadership can rally public and private forces and give voice to the need for sustainable and enduring affordable housing.
SUSTAINABILITY AND CLIMATE ACTION
Historically the City has been slow to adopt the most current Building and Energy Codes - but we must reverse that trend. Channeling our legacy of innovation, the City needs to adopt a climate-forward approach and adopt the most robust building codes available as a way to fight climate change and make significant progress toward a carbon-free city. Our buildings are significant contributors to the carbon crisis, through both the embodied carbon in the materials involved in their construction as well as their ongoing emissions due to the energy they consume to maintain heating, cooling, ventilation, and electrical systems. In fact, buildings represent nearly 40% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. We know that to reach the decarbonization targets set by the Paris Agreement, we must do more. Electrification, the shift to using electricity rather than burning fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal for heating and cooking, affords our buildings the opportunity to utilize renewable and zero-carbon energy. Progressive legislators in peer cities have begun to require all-electric building codes as a primary means to fight climate change. For example, New York City recently barred most new building projects submitted for approval as early as 2024 from using natural gas or oil for heating, hot water, and cooking, with exceptions for critical facilities such as hospitals, and commercial kitchens. Former Governor Wolf’s veto of a State bill that would have prevented Philadelphia from mandating electrification offers you an opening to do just that. Our buildings must be resilient and adaptable, while also serving as our community’s first line of defense against environmental disasters and changing conditions of life and property.
Through great effort, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) created Philadelphia 2035: The Comprehensive Plan for the city. The process was (and continues to be) inclusive, holistic, and professional. In the true spirit of Philadelphia, the recommendations are both practical and visionary. Unfortunately, executing the plan has proven difficult. Relative to peer cities, our planning department is severely underfunded, understaffed, and without sufficient power. The result is an unpredictable and parochial system that relies heavily on councilmanic prerogative and the private sector. The complexity of urban development, combined with the need to include the public, demands a robust Planning Commission. Currently, the PCPC is the second smallest of any major city in the US, with only 27 full-time staff planners. San Diego, California has approximately 300,000 less people than Philadelphia, but they have 80 staff planners, compared to our 27.
It is the responsibility of the mayor to ensure that the PCPC is given the resources it needs to do its job. This means increasing the size and funding of the PCPC, so that it can adequately advance the 2035 Vision and effectively review and approve projects. The Commission must have the resources to effectively engage with our communities and ensure that the voices of residents are heard and respected. By increasing the size and resources of the PCPC, the City of Philadelphia will be able to meet its process, sustainability, and equitable community engagement goals. This will result in a more predictable, equitable, and sustainable real estate development process in Philadelphia.
Our city faces great challenges, but also has great opportunities. Philadelphia’s physical assets - its structures, transportation systems, open spaces, and institutions have demonstrated their ability to adapt and anticipate social and economic shifts and will once again prove resilient and ready. The members of AIA Philadelphia practice, teach, research, serve, and lead organizations across the city and beyond, and are here to support the work we have ahead.
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