Andrew Altman profile

Make Philadelphia a more dynamic place to live

Andrew Altman believes in cities. Since March, when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter named him Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and Director of Commerce, Altman has been learning the ropes so even more people can believe in one particular city. He intends to help make Philadelphia a contender.

“I took this job because of my passionate belief in cities,” he says. “I have dedicated my career to making cities better, more dynamic places to live. If I can have a small impact on this city, that would be meaningful.”

Altman, a planner, prefers density and walkability. “Cities that cater to automobiles, I don’t like. I don’t gravitate to horizontal cities, such as Phoenix and Houston. Many sections of Los Angeles, perhaps surprisingly, are vibrant, urban places.” He appreciates diversity in architecture, people, economy and jobs and lists New York, Barcelona and London in his yes! column.

By creating the position of deputy mayor and naming Altman to fill it, Nutter cleverly combines, for the first time, authority for all the city’s planning and economic-development functions. Altman, a 45-year-old Germantown native who also lived in Society Hill, jumped at the job offer because of the “vision and passion for the city” of the man who tendered it.

“Planning in Philadelphia has a mayoral mandate, which indicates its importance.” In some places, he says, including Philadelphia in the past, no one plans for planning. “What attracted me here was that the mayor cared. Mayors are urban designers, or can be if they wish, through their vision, sense of design, authority and investment. They can have a profound influence, positive or negative.” And they can inspire or discourage private investors.

Altman supposes that, because Nutter values planning, he wants place to play a more central role. “Until now, people handing planning and economic-development functions have been advisory,” he says. “Mayor Nutter wants these recommendations to matter, to restore our sense of vision, to think about and inspire our future.”

Gary Hack, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design and former chair of the City Planning Commission, was Altman’s professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He told the Inquirer, “He’s exactly what Philadelphia needs” to restore credibility to the city’s broken planning and zoning agencies.

Altman’s ministry embraces an impressive portfolio. He runs the Department of Commerce, Department of Licenses and Inspections, Planning Commission, Zoning Advisory Commission, Historical Commission and Office of Housing and Community Development. He also directs the activities of these agencies and non-profit entities: Redevelopment Authority, Philadelphia Commercial Development Corporation, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, Penn’s Landing Corporation, Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation and Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board. (The Mayor’s Business Action Team no longer exists, and Nutter separated Commerce from the office of the City Representative.)

“Philadelphians undervalue Philadelphia,” he says. “Philadelphia is a great city. I would like to help restore its sense of pride. I would like to enhance our sense of competitiveness for commerce. I’d like to find a way to make up for the huge loss of jobs that happened during the transition from industrial to post-industrial to service economy. We have fabulous assets in tourism, medicine, financial services, our port facilities, the airport and our centrality. We can make it competitive.

“We also have to focus on how we can link the growth of the economy to eliminating poverty, illiteracy and the other daunting problems we face.”

As special assistant to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley from 1989 to 1991, Altman was a primary adviser and representative on all issues related to redevelopment. Beginning in 1991, he was the special assistant to the administrator of the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles. In 1995 he served as the director of city planning and manager of comprehensive planning for the City of Oakland.

Altman established his reputation for public-sector work in Washington, D.C., where, beginning in 1999, he headed the planning agency and served in the mayor’s cabinet. City planning in the District had long been the exclusive domain of the National Capital Planning Commission. Mayor Williams named Altman the first president and CEO of the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, which he established to guide the revitalization of 3,000 acres of urban waterfront.

In 2005 Altman set out his own shingle, creating a development company in New York City to lead large-scale, urban development projects for private equity and development firms.

As an advisor and teacher of urban development, Altman is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Metropolitan Policy; an “urban expert” to the Urban Age Project of the London School of Economics and a member of the visiting committee of MIT’s Urban Studies and Planning Program.

Watching the maelstroms swirl around casinos, Delaware River waterfront development and even-taller skyscrapers, Altman has yet to imprint his particular stamp on Philadelphia.

After attending Central High School and the magnet Parkway program, he studied geography at Temple University and earned a master’s in city planning from MIT in 1988. He took a fellowship at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and later advised the late Teddy Kolleck, then mayor of Jerusalem, on a planning program for five Palestinian and five Jewish neighborhoods – working in Hebrew.

Andy Altman and his wife, Hillary, a University of Pennsylvania-trained architect, seek housing in Center City, where he senses “a big-city feel on a manageable scale. You can lead a life here with culture and parks. The Schuylkill River bank transformation is a huge success story. It has become a natural magnet, and it’s a great testament to the power of riverfronts.”

With two youngsters, ages four and under one, Altman expresses surprise at the dearth of kid-friendly places. They have been living in Soho, NYC, which he terms “an intense urban environment, with 10 kids spaces in a 15-minute radius of our home. That’s what keeps families there.”

It was Altman’s former boss, former Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, who recommend the young planner to Mayor Nutter. Williams raved about Altman’s accomplishments, first as a city planner and later as CEO of the Anacostia group. Nutter promptly Googled and e-mailed Altman, who picked up the message on a Sunday lunch at home.

“I came to Philadelphia after speaking with Mayor Nutter. I had an aha feeling, sensing the spirit of energy that was building around him. Doing this kind of work is about idealism and passion. I haven’t lived in Philadelphia for a long time, but I have family here, so I’m not completely out of touch. There’s a pent-up sense that this is a really unique moment. This could be Philadelphia’s moment.” And Altman’s.

10 things Andy Altman likes about Philadelphia.

1. Row-home neighborhoods rock.
2. You can walk anywhere in Center City.
3. It has a great built fabric.
4. William Penn’s squares continue to exert a powerful influence.
5. Fairmount Park is incredible.
6. It’s big. but it’s manageable.
7. It enjoys a large work force.
8. The Schuylkill Riverbanks has transformed part of the city.
9. Street life is vibrant.
10. This is Philadelphia’s moment.

This profile of Altman appeared in Context, the quarterly magazine of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).