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"A New Day Has Arrived - Real Estate Perspective On The New Philadelphia," presentation by Carl S. Primavera to the Urban Land Institute, 2008

09.01.08

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this program.  My perspective is based upon my role acting as the interface between developers and government on development projects.  Having worked in government and in private practice for over thirty years, I have seen the development review process change over a variety of administrations from Frank Rizzo, Bill Green, Wilson Goode, Ed Rendell and John Street.  What is different about the present administration in my opinion is the fact that planning was and is an important policy issue which the media and the public fully supported with the hope that, in perfecting a process, we would be able to define and implement a vision for our city.  My question is whether the media and the public will be supportive of decisions that are not necessarily popular, but fully validated through a development review process which is transparent, predictable and efficient.  Only time will tell.           

From the outset, the legal and development communities are very encouraged and excited about the appointments from the Nutter Administration.  In addition to my co-panelists today, there has been a great deal of enthusiasm regarding the appointment of Alan Greenberger as Director of the Planning Commission, and the new members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, including its Chair, Susan Jaffe, and, of course, Joe Manko, a very well respected member of the Philadelphia legal community.  The Nutter Administration will need to work with all of the City operating agencies dealing with real estate development, along with our City Council.  During the campaign, Mayor Nutter indicated that he would work with City Council to revise the prerogatives that each District Council person historically has over approvals for projects in their individual districts.  This, along with work on the new Zoning Code, will certainly bring about a new day in Philadelphia.  We are also told that a more professional approach to zoning and planning will result in more harmonious relationships with civic organizations or other potential protestants who have feared backdoor politics in the past.  The truth is that many of these groups were not unhappy when the politics worked to their favor.  In any event, a new period of cooperation based upon perceived fairness will certainly be a positive development.           

A major concern running through the development community is whether the new process will result in additional expenses, delays and hurdles which in this economic environment would be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.  It seems that there is no end to the new and emerging issues and trends aimed at influencing development, and we must work to coordinate them into a comprehensive scheme that facilitates development rather than adding additional burdens to it.  Consider inclusionary housing legislation, green initiatives, stormwater management requirements, among others.  Again, there needs to be confidence in the development community that these will bring about positive change and not merely additional delay and expense.  The truth is that, if done properly, developers may benefit from these legislative initiatives, as well as planning initiatives like the Penn Praxis study if implemented in a fair and flexible way.  I am very excited about the emphasis on transit-oriented development.  In many cases, community groups and City agencies imposed parking requirements which were unnecessary and costly, given we are a city with full infrastructure.  The TOD trend is one that I believe will be very helpful to developers, as will master plan redevelopment – especially if it avoids retaliatory zoning such as height limitations imposed by City Council overlays in reaction to unpopular projects.             

Here in no particular order are some of the opportunities and challenges I see in my practice:

1.            30th Street.  Brandywine will continue to move forward with Cira South which is making the connection between University City and Center City much stronger and closer.  Hopefully, Black Rock will be a part of that process.

2.            In Northern Liberties, Bart Blatstein and other developers have been revitalizing a great community and Bart is ready for the next phase, to include a neighborhood supermarket.  Although the style of the development has changed over time, the goal of repopulating Northern Liberties and creating an appropriate demand for neighborhood retail remains the same.

3.            The waterfront is a huge challenge.  Over the past few years, we have been working on a handful of high-rise, mixed-use developments on Columbus Boulevard.  A series of events seemed to prevent anything from happening, including the initiative by Governor Rendell and Senator Fumo regarding riparian rights, the impact of the casino selection process, the Penn Praxis plan, community demands for input into the planning process and community development funds, and the like.  There is also the issue pertaining to federal navigation servitudes, and my hope is that a comprehensive plan for the waterfront will actually invite and expedite quality development along the waterfront and lead us out of the current morass. 

4.            Speaking of casinos, some people think that casinos on the waterfront would spur positive growth and development in the area and others thought they would be a negative influence.  Stay tuned, as this story will continue to unfold on the front pages of the paper.

5.            As the residential market softened, we still were working on a handful of hotels in Center City.  Although the Meridian at the former YMCA is under construction, several of the others have been sidetracked due to the capital market problem.  It still seems that there is fair amount of demand for hotel rooms in the city.  There is also a strong interest in boutique hotels as part of the tourist market and Philadelphia as a restaurant town phenomenon.

6.            Retail Development.            We do see some additional retail development in Center City as, hopefully, some new space comes online meeting the requirements of retailers for larger spaces on Chestnut and Walnut Streets.  It will be interesting to see if the Girard Estate parcel will be repositioned for higher quality retailing as we await more significant development as part of the expanded Convention Center – Market Street East corridor.  The Gallery needs to be repositioned as well, along with the ultimate development of Eighth and Market Streets.

7.            Finally, what is left of the residential market in Philadelphia with the high cost of materials and union wages, housing is struggling. But we continue to see rental and “for sale” units under construction, including Dranoff on South Broad Street, Bart Blatstein in Northern Liberties, and the next phase of Toll’s Naval Square project in Grays Ferry.  Of course, campus housing always seems to be in demand as part of the continuing “meds” and “eds” expansion in Philadelphia.

I hope these observations give you some insight and I thank you for the opportunity to share them with you.