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Official Says Philly May Squeak Through Tough Financial Times

September 25, 2008 By:
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Andrew Altman

On the heels of a roller coaster week on Wall Street and the onset of what many economists are calling the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Philadelphia's deputy mayor for planning and economic development warned that the city may be facing tough fiscal times in the near future. But, he insisted, there is no reason to panic.

Andrew Altman, who also holds the post of Commerce Department director, acknowledged that Philadelphia is facing the prospect of a five-year, $450 million budget shortfall, due in part to the struggling real estate market and a serious decrease in tax revenues.

But the 45-year-old native of the Germantown section of the city argued that Philadelphia is better equipped than many places to weather the storm. That's because so many of its jobs are in the fields of health care and education, employment sectors less prone to cyclical ups and downs.

"Job growth is obviously slower. Demand in terms of real estate projects is slower," said Altman, during an interview in his office, which overlooks 16th Street near City Hall. "The thing that we can do is to create the best business environment that we can."

Altman said that the administration's job is to reassure the public at large and small business owners that "we are going to manage the city well, that we are going to be prudent in terms of the budget decisions that we make."

Altman took up his current post in March, returning to the city that he hadn't called home since graduating from Temple University in the 1980s. He said he'd been lured out of the private sector -- he had his own consulting firm in New York City -- by Mayor Michael Nutter's promise that he would have the power and mandate to balance civic planning with economic growth. And Altman insisted that the economic crisis will not grind these twin processes to a halt.

For instance, he is overseeing the restructuring of the Penn's Landing Development Corporation, with the ultimate goal of revitalizing the Delaware River waterfront area from Oregon Avenue in the south to Allegheny Avenue in the north. Waterfront development has languished for decades, with earlier plans to develop the space having fallen by the wayside.

In addition, Altman noted that, in the wake of continued community opposition, the city and the Foxwoods Development Company are "seriously exploring" the option of relocating a proposed casino from the Delaware River waterfront to Market Street east of City Hall, a section of the thoroughfare he said is in need of redevelopment.

Altman, who grew up attending both Germantown Jewish Centre and the Society Hill Synagogue -- he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in Israel -- said that he's been interested in buildings as long as he can remember. As a teenager he read Design of Cities by Philadelphia's longtime city planning czar, Edmund Bacon, and became hooked on the idea of engineering an entire metropolis.

A Personal Bond With Israel
After earning his master's degree in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Altman spent three years in Israel, first completing fellowships at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then working in the office of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who is often credited with totally revamping Israel's capital.

Altman noted that he carried out much of his work in Hebrew, although he said he's lost a good deal of his language proficiency. He said he retains a profound connection to Israel and went there for his honeymoon 10 years ago.

Altman made his reputation heading up city planning agencies in Oakland, Calif., and later in Washington, D.C., where he also was the first president and CEO of the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, established to oversee development of another waterfront area in the capital that's less- well-known than the Potomac.

He said he wasn't planning to return to the public sector, but the chance to work in his native city -- where his mother still lives -- coupled with Nutter's energy, won him over. He never thought the job would be easy. But following the recent economic shake-ups of the last few weeks, the effort to merge planning and reality just got somewhat more difficult.

"These are huge structural forces sweeping the international marketplace. It's not realistic to think that the city is going to solve them," said Altman. "There is a tsunami of economic challenges, but the city has to stay a steady course and manage itself responsibly." 

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