Last week Drexel University announced that Alan Greenberger, former deputy mayor, will join its faculty as a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the department of architecture and interiors and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow in the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.
Before he officially starts on April 1, we caught up with Greenberger to chat about his seven-year tenure with the Nutter administration, his most and least favorite projects that were built under his watch, and what Philly neighborhood still has his heart.
Congratulations on your new role at Drexel. When and why did you decide to take on this position?
Well I just thought that after a pretty long career in architecture and then what felt like a equivalently long career in public life—7 years, that's like dog years!—I felt like the thing to do while I'm still coherent is try to share experience and knowledge with young people.
It's kind of my last gig probably and I thought it would be really rewarding. It's also just nice being around young minds and the excitement about their future. I taught before and always liked it—so it seemed like the logical next step.
You played such an integral role in the development boom during the Nutter administration. What are you most proud of accomplishing during your tenure?
Well, we got some very big things done. The zoning code was rewritten, we've embarked and completed two thirds of comprehensive plan of the whole city. We got the two most difficult important projects to get done, the Divine Lorraine, and the Gallery, initiated. So they're under construction.
And at a kind of more business evolution level, we've had [...] quite a recovery since the recession. We've got a budding entrepreneurial community. And we've gained international status with the World Heritage City recognition—all huge things we were able to get done. I think a part of me said, "Look this is great—get out while you can."
Now that you're not in public office, what projects are you looking forward to watching as a private citizen?
Well I'm real interested in seeing the two waterfronts develop. I spent a lot of time on both of them, particularly the Delaware River. There's a lot of development to come and to make sure all the right things happen. We had developed and initiated the plan for lower Schuylkill over the next 20 years and I'm excited to see things happening there. I'll be watching those very carefully. But really, there's resurgences happening all over the city—there's certainly a ton of tower cranes.
You're right. If you look at the skyline from South Street Bridge, it's just all cranes.
I think it's not just the fact of the building boom. I think the entire design ethos of the city has gone up in general. I don't think every building is a winner or extraordinary piece of architecture. But I think as a whole, the design character of the city has gone up and I'm especially proud of that.
Are there any projects that you look back now and think, "Hey, maybe that could have gone another way"?
I mean inevitably there are always some projects that I've thought, "I missed understanding what that one was about." But honestly there aren't that many of them. I sometimes wonder with some development projects around town whether I should have injected myself into more architectural critique. As an architect, I really felt strongly about that, but that's not my job. My job was to protect public realm. I wasn't there to be someone's architect. I tried really hard to stay focused on what our job was: to make sure buildings respond to public in the right way.
As an architect, what are some of your favorite buildings in Philly?
The Barnes is a spectacular building. And our institutions continue to really excel, the new dorm that's being build at Penn—Hill Field—is a very accomplished piece of architecture.
Many of more developer-oriented projects, I wouldn't say they're A-plus architecture, but good solid B-pluses. With 2116 chestnut, there was a lot of negotiating with neighborhoods, working with architects on how to best position the tower. Now, it's a very handsome building. I don't think it's design award-winning, but it's a handsome urban building.
Speaking of working with neighborhoods, what are your thoughts on how the civic process has changed in terms of neighborhood associations working with developers?
I think the City Planning Commission staff spends a lot of time on process and working with communities. It's tortuous work, but this is important to do. We live in an era when public process and ability of people to speak about projects is enormous because of technology. Some of it is coo-coo talk, but a lot of it is really intelligent commentary.
Even if you disagree and do something else, but they know you heard them, and they knew you took it seriously, that builds a better stronger community. And I think that most developers would prefer to do projects that communities around them actually like.
What's your favorite neighborhood in Philly?
I love East Mt. Airy, but I spent 16 years in West Philly and I still have a real place in my heart for it. I say that without being too Polyannaish about it. But we raised our children there, and we started out there.
We actually were somewhat sad to move on. We started on the block as the youngest couple, and by the time we moved, everyone was having babies and growing up, and we thought hey, time to do something else.