Next Tuesday, February 18th, former Mayor of Philadelphia and Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell will receive the 2014 Edmund N. Bacon Prize. The award is given each year to a public figure “who has achieved outstanding results in urban planning, development, and design through conviction of vision, effective communication, and commitment to improving the community.” While Rendell wasn’t exactly known for his planning savvy, he did get things done with development, he believed in Center City, and he advocated tirelessly and invested in public infrastructure.
Diana Lind, chair of the Ed Bacon Prize committee and Executive Director of Next City, said of him via email: “Few people in government or outside of it have so vocally or relentlessly advocated for investment in infrastructure as Ed Rendell. By bestowing the award on Gov. Rendell we hope to reinforce the idea that, even as we develop new mobility technologies, we need public-sector visionaries who will ensure that transportation and infrastructure aren’t an afterthought, but a foundation for the country’s economic growth and social equity.”
Greg Heller, author of Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia (and also a member of the Ed Bacon Prize committee) echoed Lind’s sentiments: “In his role as Mayor and Governor, Rendell has been a champion for urban development—credited by many for enabling Philadelphia’s stunning renaissance. He was always willing to dream big and take on ambitious ideas. In his current role as co-chair for Building America’s Future he has taken to the national stage to speak passionately about the need for our nation to reinvest in its infrastructure. We feel that his lifetime of work for a brighter urban future and a more resilient national infrastructure earned him this honor.”
The award will be presented on Tuesday at 7pm, appropriately, in the theater of the Pennsylvania Convention Center that Rendell helped get built. The ceremony will also honor this year’s student winners of the Ed Bacon Better Philadelphia Challenge. Tickets are $15 (and VIP tickets $150) and can be purchased HERE.
Governor Rendell sat down with Hidden City’s Brad Maule to discuss the prize, Ed Bacon, Center City, Penn’s Landing, and more.
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BRAD MAULE: Let’s talk a little about the Ed Bacon Prize. Ed Bacon was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964, a very famous cover, so the Philadelphia Planning Commission was on the world stage, when urban renewal was a major thing. We’ve certainly learned a lot from it—some good some bad—but of course by the ’90s, planning sort of had to take a secondary position in the city; there were bigger fish to fry. Nevertheless, I’m sure the Planning Commission had some good ideas for your administration. Were there any major innovations that they brought to you? Because certainly Center City was a major focus of your administration.
ER: Let me start by saying that the reason I accepted the award was that Ed Bacon was just a wonderful person, as was the incredible work for the city. The stuff he did planning and redeveloping the city was nothing short of miraculous. He also was a tremendous urbanphile, if that’s a word, and he kept absolutely pushing for change and improvements in the city all the time. I heard from him when I was a candidate in ’91, and when I won in ’92, of course the biggest challenge facing us when I took office was that we had the largest deficit, in terms of percentage of revenue, of any city in history, and obviously that was the first thing we had to take care of. Nothing else mattered.
Then about three weeks after I was mayor, I see Ed and he takes me aside and says, “Mayor, what we need is a son et lumière.” I didn’t know what a son et lumière was, and he says, “a sound and light show! We need a sound and light show that highlights our historic sites.” And I said, “sure Ed, y’know, lemme see what I can do with the deficit and I’ll get back to you. And I guess he thought I was blowing him off, but within a year and a couple months, we really did a miraculous job in dealing with the deficit, we put some sound fiscal plans out, we cut the wage tax five years in a row.
And then contemporaneous with dealing with the budget in the first 14 months, we decided we needed to revitalize the core of the region. If we were ever going to act as a region, we’d need a strong core and a reason for the people from the suburbs to come in. So in those first fourteen months, we did a lot of things—some that cost money, some that didn’t. For example, we did Wednesday Night Out, which was based on New York’s Thursday Night Out, so on Wednesdays, I persuaded all these restaurants to give a discount. We had ambient entertainment, museums stayed open late, and my wife and I would go out every Wednesday night, to one of the restaurants offering the discounts, and I’d see people from the suburbs who’d say, “this is a great idea, mayor, I haven’t been downtown in ten years.”
So, we continued to do stuff like that and of course the big effort was the Avenue of the Arts. And the Planning Commission had a role in working with the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, and my economic development task force handed me a 30 page paper done by the CPDC, talking about making a one-mile stretch of South Broad into the Avenue of the Arts. And the William Penn Foundation started one or two of the projects and I thought this was gonna be the cornerstone to reviving the downtown. We also created the Welcome America Festival, taking the Fourth of July celebration from one day to a week of wonderful celebrations. We were doing things to make the city fun, to give people a reason to come back into town.
When we balanced the budget, I thought about our economy, and I thought one of the spokes had to be tourism. There were two types of tourists: arts and culture tourists—and the Avenue of the Arts fell into this category—which needed to be high end, usually empty nesters, and my goal was to get every empty nester interested in arts and culture to come to Philadelphia for a long weekend. And the other one, maybe even more important, was family visitors and AARP visitors interested in heritage and history. But of course they were interested in it being presented in a more appealing and entertaining fashion than the Park Service did. The Park Service would have a guy or woman in a ranger suit give a 45, 60 second spiel about Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell and that was it. There was no real sense of a place.
So when I had a chance to take a deep breath and work on heritage tourism, a light bulb went off in my head and I said “sound and light show!” So I called Ed in and he spoke with me and some people working on heritage tourism, and we decided it was a great idea to put out an RFP all across the country, and the winning bid was from LA, and they created Lights of Liberty—which is legitimately one of only two or three light shows like it in the country. There’s one at Mount Rushmore and one at Fort McHenry, but neither one for very long. This sound and light show was about an hour, and it became one of the cornerstones of our revitalized tourism industry. So, the idea that I sort of snuffed off when Ed brought it to me became a reality, and he lived long enough to see it, and he was pretty tickled by it. And when I talk about it, I always say that this was Ed Bacon’s vision.
In terms of planning, I think it’s important to have a planning commission that works with the administration to sketch out a vision and then implement a vision—to prevent against things that would cut against the vision, to promote things that would fulfill the vision. I think the planning commission did that very well during my eight years as mayor.
BM: A lot of the basis in receiving this award is not based in planning per se, but your belief and investment in infrastructure, and that’s very obviously crucial…
ER: I was just reading an article about the massive sink hole and water main break at the new shopping center in East Falls—incredible—those pipes were laid in 18 effin 95. That’s what, 119 years ago? Damn. And that’s not unusual. And I’d say half of our pipes were laid in the 19th century. We’ve gotta get to it. We’ve really gotta get to it.
And if I were to run for mayor again—which I’m not, but if I were—I would find some way to choose the city’s capital budget so that we could really repair our infrastructure. One, we need it desperately—it’s important to support growth, public safety, you name it, but two, it’s a great job producer. And right now Philadelphia needs jobs more than it needs anything else. So I’d like to find a way to put a billion dollars into an infrastructure repair program in the next two or three years. And you’d have to do it by bonding—you can’t do it off the city’s general debt because there isn’t enough room—you’d need to find some specific revenue sources.
BM: Transportation has got to be a part of the equation too
ER: When you say “infrastructure” people think of transportation, and that’s the most important component of them—water and sewer, the electrical grid, broadband, the port, the airport, you know, all those things are part of the infrastructure equation.
BM: Well it’s interesting that you mention broadband—it’s very 21st century infrastructure, very important—we have a very major player in the broadband industry, as evidenced by the news that’s come out over the past couple weeks.
ER: I had to laugh. When I was governor and we did the first Comcast tower, we gave them thirty million dollars of state money to do public places in that development, and we got criticized brutally by the Republicans. This new building, they’re getting forty million dollars, and it’s a Republican governor. [Laughs.]
BM: All told, it’s a pretty great project with a major pedigree.
ER: It is. Although I love the Four Seasons where it is, having the Four Seasons at the top of a building like this—that’s Tokyo, that’s the great cities of the world stuff.
BM: And the public can go there.
ER: Oh sure—you look at Comcast 1. Just hang around the lobby and watch the public come in to look at the video display. At Christmastime, people flock to see that, it’s unbelievable. So I think it’s great, and look, the great thing about Philadelphia, from an urban standpoint, is—and Ed Bacon deserves a lot of the credit for this—we blend the old and the new. We have some great examples of old architecture. I was talking with Richard Suckle, one of the producers of 12 Monkeys, and he says the reason that they chose Philly is that we have so many great old buildings. But we also have some great new ones—and I don’t just mean the Comcast Center—but the Mellon Center, the two Liberty Place buildings, they’re terrific looking modern buildings, and the juxtaposition is great. You can walk down Market Street East and see the Aramark Tower, PSFS, Rohm & Haas, and then you come on the Graff House, right in the middle of it, at 7th and Market Streets. We have wonderful architecture. You know, you look at Williamsburg—it’s a recreation, a very good recreation—but our historic district, you have Carpenter’s Hall, even Independence Hall, there’s skyscrapers all around it, and it’s real, a very nice blend. Society Hill, for example—New York City would die to have something as great as Society Hill within ten blocks of its city center.
BM: We do have an amazing blend of old and new, but in spite of that, it seems preservation is one place the city could stand to improve. Sometimes grand old buildings get in the way of progress, as was the case at the Convention Center, twice.
ER: There’s a balance, though. There are certainly pastures worth preserving. Things that are important from the past are worth preserving. So it’s a balance of ‘how important is this as a representative of the past’ vs. the benefit of a new project. And often times, preservationists don’t fight about the right things, in my judgment. They’ll fight for a 19th Century house to keep it up to block an important development that’ll create 500 new permanent jobs, and yet there are 20 others within a half mile. Something that has real significance, you don’t let anybody tear it down. But it has to have real significance, or if it’s an example of a period where there’s no other examples around, then you want to save it. So it’s a real fine line.
And I’m very proud, we won several awards for the historic renovations we did. The Ritz-Carlton complex, for example, a great historic renovation that kept that wonderful dome, the uh…
BM: Girard Bank
ER: Yeah, the Girard Bank dome. The Loews Hotel, PSFS Building, the CAPA [High School for Creative and Performing Arts]… we did so many meaningful preservations of buildings of Philadelphia’s past, but again, it’s a fine line, a balance between the Planning Commission, the Art Commission, the Historic Commission. We can always do it better.
BM: Well of course, in a conversation like this, I have to ask: what’s the one that got away? In terms of planning, infrastructure, these things…
ER: Penn’s Landing. No question. I tried as mayors before me and mayors after me have to develop Penn’s Landing. I thought we had it with the Simon company project, which was gonna build and level off Delaware Avenue, a beautifully designed project which would have brought vitality to the waterfront, and entertainment to the waterfront, and I was careful because I wanted to do Penn’s Landing right. I flew out to Las Vegas because I wanted to see the shopping center they did at Caesar’s, which is one of the most incredible shopping centers of the world, before we decided to okay the plan. And it was an amazing plan, it would have been an amazing development for Penn’s Landing. It would have actually created more open space because it was gonna level off the roads and put parks on top; it would have changed the face of the waterfront forever in a positive way, by attracting new development, but the big recession, not 2008 but 2001, really killed it.
BM: Do you like the new plan? Have you paid much attention to the Hargreaves proposal the DRWC has put forth? It’s not as active as the Simon plan’s would have been.
ER: Look, it creates great open space. And cities should have great open space. As governor, I supported the Schuylkill River Trail, but the waterfront—in almost every major American city, the waterfront is a great economic engine. And so I worry that we’re taking—and you can have economic vitality and open spaces coexisting—but I’m worried that we’re taking one of the best arrows in our quiver and shooting it away. You can’t underestimate quality of life as an economic development tool, and a lot of young people particularly are attracted to cities that have open spaces, green spaces, recreation spaces, but I’m not sure that this is the best we could have done.