Monday, April 20, 2015

No Love for Love

My latest article on Broad Street Review discusses the design concepts for redoing Philadelphia's LOVE Park.

I recently posted to the wall of Greater Philadelphia Planners, Urbanists and Designers, an invitation-only Facebook group where 756 people like me geek out on topics such as bike lanes and gentrification. A post about digital billboards quickly racked up 20 comments. Yet when I asked for opinions on the new designs for Love Park, I got nothing. How could it be that the chattiest urban nerds around had nothing to say?

Read more

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Anticipating the rebirth of Grays Ferry

Check out my latest article on Broad Street Review:

During my gap year from college, my friend Andrew Hohns asked me to come down to Grays Ferry with him. He twice ran (unsuccessfully) for elected office in the 182nd state house seat. The 182nd was recently redistricted, but back then it was a strange gerrymandered snake that included much of Center City, including City Hall, Rittenhouse Square, and Washington Square West, but also a tail that curved down from Schuylkill through Devil’s Pocket and into Grays Ferry. Read more

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Economic Analysis of Detroit's Food System

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I was honored to be one of the lead consultants responsible for developing an Economic Analysis of Detroit's Food System. The report is now out and I think I speak for the whole team when I say that we're pretty proud of both the final product and the innovative approach that we utilized--combining quantitative analysis, on-the-ground community stakeholder involvement, and pragmatic policy recommendations.

I really enjoyed this project. The local stakeholders were great to work with. It was also an amazing opportunity to get to see and learn more about Detroit--a city with such challenges, yet so much potential and so many entrepreneurial people who are dedicated to their city's future.

The lead consultant firm on this project was Econsult Solutions (ESI), and I did this work wearing my hat as a Senior Advisor with ESI. I want to give a shout out to ESI's Sr. VP Lee Huang who did a great job leading the effort and developing a sound economics approach to a very complex challenge. The other firm on our team was Urbane Development, led by the great James Johnson-Piett. The report was commissioned by the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative and funding was provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

To quote the report:
"This report arrives at a critical time for the future of Detroit’s food system. With a new mayor in office, burgeoning interest in the revitalization of the city, and an increased national and regional focus on the importance of local food, now is the time to discuss the role of efficient and equiTable food systems in Detroit’s economy."

"This report seeks to assess the current state of Detroit’s food economy, highlighting the opportunities and challenges of the manner in which city residents and stakeholders currently interact with the food sector. The purpose is to develop a strategic approach to cultivating a food system that works for all city residents." 
Findings include:
  • The Detroit Food System produces $3.6 billion in revenue and directly employs over 36,000 people earning close to $1 billion in salaries and wages per year in the city of Detroit.
  • Including Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, the food system in the Detroit Metro area is responsible for about 45.8 billion in economic impact, supporting about 59,000 jobs and about 1.9 billion in wages and earnings per year.
  • The Detroit food system pays less, provides fewer jobs and garners less revenue than comparable regional food systems throughout the country.
  • With a 30% localization shift, the food system would become the second largest industry in Detroit's economy, represent $5.4 billion in annual revenues, directly employ over 52,000 people and represent 1.3 billion in annual wages and salaries.
Check out the full report here. I welcome your comments and feedback.

A final shout out to everybody on the ground in Detroit who is working hard to turn their city into a success story of urban resurgence and resilience. Your efforts are inspiring.

Best, Greg

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Is Philly ready for greatness? Maybe, maybe not

(Originally published on Broad Street Review)

I’ve been to Dilworth Park three times since its grand opening on September 4th. The first time I was rushing to a meeting, and was about to walk around the north side of City Hall. Then I remembered that Dilworth Park was open, so I cut through City Hall as we used to do in the days of yore. It was midday and the space was full of business types with suits and cell phones. Dilworth Park looked clean, new, and expansive. There wasn’t anything there to blow me away, but it felt good.

Soon thereafter I read Inga Saffron’s review of DP in the Inquirer, which basically rips DP and Center City District a new one. Then I read Victor Fiorillo’s article in Philly Mag titled “Everybody Hates Dilworth Park.” I felt the way one does after going out on a great first date, but then you talk to a friend who also dated the person and you learn she’s actually completely insane.

A week later I found myself at DP in the evening. There were a dozen or so people in the park. The water jets are pretty dramatic at night, lit up, popping out of the dark pavement. I stopped for a few minutes to watch. Again I liked DP. But why were those articles so hostile? I was confused.

The third time was charmless

The third time I visited was a gloomy Sunday and half of the water jets were turned off. The park felt barren without the fountain element — big and gray and desolate. People were passing through but nobody was sitting around enjoying the park. I started to see the park’s imperfections. It felt bland and monotonous.

I was also turned off by the signs that say “This is the entrance to transit, not to the emergency room. No skateboarding allowed.” I have friends who skate and are smart grown-up people with real jobs, and I’ve learned that the way we treat skateboarders says a lot about how cool/uncool our city is. Can you imagine if there were a sign that said, “this is a corporate lobby, not a coffee shop”? That’s basically the same thing. The signs in DP are not cute; they’re snarky and rude and need to go.

I ended my third visit miffed and depressed. I concluded that DP is better than the old plaza. But it also isn’t great.

A look back

Many Philadelphians either never knew or can’t remember what DP was before. Back in the day, it was the site of Broad Street Station, the depot for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The station sat on a weird little parcel, and 15th Street actually divided at that point and ran around both sides of it. When the Railroad tore down the station, the fate of that parcel was uncertain until, in 1961, Mayor Dilworth made a commitment that the City would buy it and turn it into a public park. Architect Vincent Kling created an interesting design that never functioned well and aged even worse.

By the 2000s, the plaza was definitely ready for an update, and in 2010 the Center City District released a set of plans for a revamped plaza. At this point I was on the board of an organization called Design Advocacy Group (DAG), and I chaired a committee to formulate DAG’s opinion of the proposed plans for DP and come up with an op-ed that we would publish. I led the committee and we wrote an op-ed, but the group’s leadership thought it was too critical of the design. I ended up resigning from DAG’s board, frustrated. The op-ed never got published.

Recently I scoured my email and found the op-ed draft. Two points are worth reviving and reconsidering.

I tried to tell them . . .

The first point was that the renovation should not stop at DP, but should also include a redo of the two corners across 15th Street, at Market. If you stand by the Clothespin, it is striking how DP, though more modern now, is still an island surrounded by traffic. It would have been great if this project could have calmed and pedestrianized that intersection, unifying those three corner plazas into a real civic center.

Another takeaway from the op-ed was its hope that rather than a complete tear-down renovation, perhaps there was a way to incorporate some of the old plaza with the new. I admit that the old plaza had a lot of dysfunction and failure, but it also had some interesting multi-level spaces and sculptural elements that are going to be awesomely retro when people look at photos a decade from now. Wasn’t there a way to build a new plaza and retain some of the old details, building a bridge between past and future? It’s too late for DP, but there are other old downtown spaces still to be renovated.

At the end of the day DP leaves much to be desired. I know raising $55 million is no easy task. The 41 percent of contracts that went to women- and minority-owned firms is impressive. We have to give credit to pulling off a project that ultimately makes our city better. But it could have been so much better still. Maybe we got our hopes up too much, but after visiting recent urban park projects in other places that blew me away, DP disappointed.

Are we ready to have our minds blown?

There are two possible ways of looking at DP: 1) Center City District and two of our city’s top design firms (Kieran Timberlake and Olin) failed to deliver on the park’s potential, or 2) Philadelphia is not ready for a mind-blowing civic project because it lacks the political leadership and muscle, high public expectations, and financial wherewithal to build something with the impact (if not the scale) of Chicago’s Millennium Park.

I actually think the second answer, though frustrating, is more likely. On the other hand, DP was planned five years ago, and our city's psyche is different now. Had the planning for DP begun today the result may have been quite different. The mastermind behind DP is Paul Levy, the head of Center City District. For years I have really admired Paul. I believe he’s one of the most important people responsible for Philly’s rebound over the past 20 years or so. I’ve interacted with Paul enough to know that nobody wants to see Philadelphia do mind-blowing things more than he does. It’s possible, though, that he’s just a lot more patient than the rest of us.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gehry Disappointing

Yesterday I visited the Frank Gehry exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (hereafter PMA). Underwhelming would be an understatement. The exhibit showcases the results of a design process that has been going on since 2006—seriously, that’s eight years of planning by one of the top architects of our time, famous for massive, ambitious, bizarrely shaped, twisted sculptures of metal that (like them or not) become a permanent and recognizable fixture in their cities’ urban landscapes. Even if I didn’t like the proposed renovation design, I figured at least it would be ambitious and interesting. It was neither.

Entering the exhibit I had visions of the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Disney Concert Hall in L.A. dancing in my head. In fact, the PMA exhibit equates its own renovation to those and other Gehry landmarks. I knew the PMA project was in-large-part underground, but still I hoped for something iconic and visionary—perhaps our own version of I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, but Gehryesque. After all, Pei and Gehry share the distinction of being extremely successful corporate architects who can still do pretty awesome things when given the opportunity.

Unfortunately Philly will have no such luck. Whether the issue has to do with the architect, the client, the City’s Art Commission, lack of funds, or whatever, for some reason the design for PMA’s expansion is amazingly boring and unambitious. It is essentially just a gallery expansion project, repurposing some parts of the museum that have been underutilized, creating additional gallery and educational space, opening up some skylights and windows. Really pretty dull stuff.

In addition, I feel compelled to add that the exhibit itself was weak on content and poorly curated. This could have been a great chance to get visitors to understand the inner workings and history of the museum, to express Gehry’s vision, to help people gain an appreciation of the enormous collection that remains in storage (I didn’t realize PMA had 227,000 objects until I Googled it for this article). Instead the exhibit included a few historic photos of the museum, several models, and some brief wall text. It was really a missed opportunity.

It was also weirdly defensive in a Philadelphia-inferiority-complex type of way. Instead of talking about how amazing the renovation will be and how transformative it could be for the city, the exhibition seemed to immediately assume that the public would hate the design. It seemed like a major objective of the show was to defend some of the more controversial (but really, not that controversial) design aspects. The exhibit was also very small and felt slapped together. There wasn’t even any interesting Gehry kitsch for sale in the gift shop.

I’m sure at the end of the day the renovation will create some nice, well-lit, and properly temperature controlled galleries, but in terms of changing the museum’s perception in our city or creating any iconic architectural statement for the Parkway, it’s a big let down. Even the “controversial” option—written up in Artnet News and The Guardian—that removes half of the Rocky steps to create a new outdoor atrium is still pretty blasé as a work of architecture. PMA’s whole approach to his project has been weird. Why has it taken this long to get such an astoundingly boring design with so little fanfare?

Look, I realize Gehry is not for everybody and there are a number of bold architects out there with distinctive styles. But if you’re going to hire Gehry, then c’mon let’s do Gehry. Let’s have big sinewy metal sculptural elements flying around the historic museum, creating a real past-meets-present statement that will change the face and image of our museum forever. Otherwise what’s the point?

The other thing that seemed strange was that much of the proposed renovation is focused on drawing the public into the museum. A nearby curator sauntered over and explained, “people see the museum building but think it’s a bank or something” (really?). It’s true that a huge number of people come to the top of the museum stairs, gaze at the skyline and/or stick their fists in the air, and then go back down without venturing inside PMA. But I question 1) whether this is actually a result of people thinking the museum is a bank, 2) how many of those Rocky wannabes would actually want to stop and see art, and 3) whether those who do want to see art are at all dissuaded by the $20 ticket price.

As I left the exhibit today, the whole situation made me sad. I have experienced this same feeling of Philly letdown periodically through the years, disappointed by each big civic opportunity slipping by before our eyes. Remember in the early 2000s when it looked like Philadelphia could join the ranks of cities with downtown sports stadiums? Instead we ended up building our new stadiums in the parking-lot wastelands of South Philly. Meanwhile I travel to places like Denver, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore with stadiums that pulse with downtown vitality. Many of these stadia are complemented by restaurants, apartments, riverfront parks, and other urban spaces. Philly lost out big time, and by-and-large our populace seems to have gotten over it far too quickly.

Back to PMA, there are several problems with our world-class museum and its architectural treasure of a building. First (the architectural historians are going to kill me for this one) is the fact that PMA is at the end of the Parkway and not downtown. I will note that Jane Jacobs made this same criticism, so I’m in good company here. Imagine how much more successful the museum would be if it were on the Avenue of the Arts or just about anywhere in Center City, rather than a hike and a half away from the heart of town. It is true that tourists magically seem to materialize at the foot of the PMA steps (see statement below about dearth of tourists on the Parkway), but they come despite the museum’s location, not because of it.

Secondly, the Parkway itself is pretty much a failure (comment above about art historians redux with heightened vitriol). Look, getting the Barnes to the Parkway was a coup (that was big and visionary); Café Cret and Sister Cities Plaza turned out great, and Center City District has had other plans over the years that would have helped. Still, what we have today is a wide highway that is unfriendly to pedestrians and does not have enough destinations to make it worth the trip. Many compare the Parkway to Champs-Élysées. I finally made it to Paris last fall and, well… the Parkway is no Champs. The Parkway is lined with far-flung museums and a smattering of pedestrians; C-E is jam packed with stylish department stores and restaurants and is so dense with people you can hardly stay on the sidewalk.

I say all of this to explain that it’s not the current leadership of PMA’s fault that they inherited a world-class art collection and a beautiful museum (that maybe does or doesn’t look like a bank) at the end of a failed boulevard. Yet here we are, and so PMA brought in Frank Gehry and I got my hopes up that we could have something spectacular at the end of the Parkway that could make a statement like Bilbao. And if PMA did that—strode boldly forward with an ambitious design—sure we would have some controversy around it. But let’s face it, there’s no way to have more controversy than Pei had with his pyramid at the Louvre, and that got built.

I had hopes that PMA was willing to be bold, forge ahead with their hand-picked starchitect and emerge with a big, new metallic icon gleaming in the sun, built from resolve, despite whatever roadblocks stood in the way. The face of Philadelphia would be changed forever, the northern end of the Parkway transformed, and the zeitgeist of our city shifted in a more courageous direction. But sadly, none of this can be found in the mediocrity of PMA’s proposed design. And the thing is, it’s all just disappointing and sad and boring and complacent—the whole mess of it.

I feel bad writing this because I know people who work for PMA and they are smart, good people. And I want to support PMA. I’ve been a member twice in my life but didn’t renew after a year went by with hardly anything new and of interest at the museum. PMA’s collection is great; I love spending time at the Japanese teahouse and puzzling over the Duchamps (one of my college architecture projects was a gallery I designed for Duchamp’s The Large Glass).

But all that civic pride and support doesn’t redeem the museum’s lack of vision/courage. If the museum wants to do something big and bold for the city, it needs to give Frank Gehry the freedom to do something really amazing and ambitious. The thing is, each time Philly can do something truly great, a bit of our inferiority and staid complacency wears away. And as we chip away at that veneer, we reveal a bit more of the aspirational city where I, and I dare say a great many other Philadelphians, really want to live.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Building Social Impact

Since November I have been given the exciting opportunity to lead an organization called American Communities Trust. This Baltimore-based nonprofit has been around since 2008 and is doing some outstanding work across the U.S., with the goal of “building social impact.”

We help partners to plan, finance, build and operate what we call social-impact real estate. What is social impact real estate? It’s any physical project that creates meaningful change for our society. It could be affordable housing, a business incubator, a community arts center, a public health clinic, a food bank. These types of projects are often much more challenging than traditional real estate and they require a different approach to get them built.

Some of our partners are nonprofits who are inexperienced as developers, but want to build a physical project in order to achieve their mission and deliver programs and services. In other cases government entities need a partner to develop innovative projects, or private developers want to build social-impact projects and need a partner who knows the ropes. Often we are involved in assessing feasibility, doing market research, planning the business model, and showing how the project can be operationally successful and sustainable. We are also often involved in helping our partners assemble their financing.

We work in a variety of ways help our partners get their projects to the finish line. Our team includes experts in real estate development, creative financing (e.g., New Markets Tax Credits, Federal Historic Tax Credits, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, government and foundation grants, venture philanthropy), and a range of experience in program areas such as public health, workforce development, food systems, arts/culture, education, and the innovation economy. We are involved in amazing projects all over the country that will have significant impacts on their communities and regions. It is very rewarding work and I’m proud to be a part of it!

I invite you to visit our website at, follow us @amcomtrust, sign up for ourmailing list, and feel free to reach out to me if you would like to discuss a partnership or project. You can reach me at

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Social Impact Bonds and the Future of Nonprofit Finance

Venture philanthropy is a major emerging force today in nonprofit finance, the idea that socially conscious work can also realize a financial return, rather than relying solely on grants and charitable donations. Within venture philanthropy, one of the most intriguing new financing instruments is the social impact bond (SIB)—a mechanism that seeks to connect a private investor’s return with measurable social outcomes that can be linked to a public sector cost savings. According to Center for American Progress, SIBs originated in England and expanded to the U.S. in 2011. Today, there are at least four examples of executed SIBs, with at least 12 others under consideration.

The enthusiasm behind SIBs is understandable. These instruments appear to be an innovative way of connecting private investment capital with cash-strapped nonprofits to achieve public-sector outcomes. It sounds like a win-win. However, these investments only truly benefit everyone if structured in a specific way. They also bring up some complicated issues about how to make sure the public interest is protected, by mitigating the risk of these products. On a larger level SIBs raise important questions about the future of philanthropy and public finance.  

Clear Public Sector Cost Savings

An SIB is an agreement between a private investor, a nonprofit, and a government entity. The nonprofit establishes a detailed business plan for a strategy that will alleviate some problem with a public-sector cost. The investor agrees to invest in the nonprofit (typically in the form of a loan), with an agreement from the government entity to pay a return on that investment based on the nonprofit’s success in achieving its outcomes.

For example, Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group made a $9MM loan to the Boston-based nonprofit Roca for programming targeted at reducing recidivism, to be repaid by the state of Massachusetts based on reported outcomes of reduction in the state prison population. The public sector reports that it sees a savings based on each individual kept out of the prison system. Goldman gets interest on the loan as well as the potential for a greater incremental return if Roca exceeds its goal.

The key to the SIB mechanism is that it is essential that the social outcome have a direct and measurable public-sector cost savings. Without this element the whole structure falls apart. For this reason, many nonprofit programs cannot be used to support an SIB, if the public sector benefit is not directly connected to a real cost savings for the public sector. In addition, the public cost is often not cut and dry, and it can be fairly complex to develop a successful SIB structure.

Who takes the risk?

In most transactions there are entities that take on more risk than others. In the case of SIBs the nonprofit bears very little risk, because if they do not meet their goals the investor absorbs the loss. And if they do meet their goals the government entity pays out the return.

While SIBs are a sweet deal for nonprofits, the other two entities take on real risk. The investor takes on risk if the outcomes are not met, and so the investor is going to mitigate their risk by only financing nonprofits with a deep track record and years of consistent outcomes that they will surely meet or exceed during the duration of the SIB. Clearly the risk level greatly restricts the kind of investor who would participate and the kind of capital that can be deployed.

The public-sector “risk” is based on successful performance—an unusual proposition. The argument is that in the success scenario, the public sector ROI is through outcome-based cost savings (fewer people in prison, on welfare, in public health clinics, etc.); however, we have to be careful to protect the public interest by weighing all of the factors that go into calculating these government costs. For example, can that savings be directly correlated to the nonprofit’s work or are the outcomes possibly the result of external forces? It is critical to answer these questions up-front, have a thorough evaluator and evaluation process, and protect both parties’ interests’ via covenants. SIBs are going to be best measured through a blend of quantitative and qualitative factors, and that takes some creativity to get the agreements right.

Replacing public dollars with private

SIBs can be a challenging sell for public-sector entities because oftentimes it is not clear, even in the best scenario, that these investments represent a true net gain for the public sector. For example, many nonprofits deliver programs that are funded by foundation grants. If the public sector takes on an SIB obligation for these programs, then the government entity is being asked to put real dollars on the line for a program that the government was essentially receiving for free.

For this reason, the most responsible match for SIBs is to target programs that the public sector is directly financing, where SIB dollars replace public-sector dollars with private investment. However, even this can be tricky to calculate because government entities pass through federal or state dollars that cannot be reprogrammed. So if a government entity takes on an SIB obligation, it should be able to demonstrate that 1) the nonprofit program was being supported by public funding rather than foundation grants; 2) that the public funding saved can in fact be re-programmed; and 3) if the nonprofit exceeds its goal that this is still a true net gain for the public sector. The point is that the public sector’s bottom line needs to be viewed holistically. As taxpayers we have a responsibility to make sure that the calculation on the part of the government entity is thorough.

SIBs and Innovation

SIBs are not ideal for encouraging new and innovative approaches. In an SIB structure, the private investment partner’s risk is based on the nonprofit under-performing. Therefore it is critical that the nonprofit’s approach be time tested and highly predictable. This situation provides the best risk scenario for the investor, but it does not encourage innovation. The only real way to support innovative programs with SIBs is if there is a way to do so via non-recourse loans seeded with dollars that do not have a repayment obligation (such as a foundation grant parked at an intermediary). These products do exist, thanks to some generous foundations, but they are scarce.

An important tool in an integrated toolkit

There are scenarios where SIBs create a win-win situation that is fiscally responsible and that frees up public-sector dollars for other uses. However, a lot of variables need to align for that situation to play out. While SIBs provide a new tool for creative nonprofit finance, it would be wrong to view them as a panacea. Except in certain scenarios they are fairly inflexible and do not encourage innovation.

Investors like Goldman should be applauded for diving into fresh territory and testing out these new types of products. However, we should also applaud those foundations that have stayed solidly in the pure grants space. There are fewer and fewer of them out there, but the need for their investments has only increased. As we move forward in the age of integrated finance models for nonprofits, we need to ensure that the equation not tilt too far away from traditional philanthropy—the future of innovation and meaningful social impact depend on it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Keys to Philadelphia's Land Bank Success

By Greg Heller

Philadelphia recently became the largest U.S. city to create a “land bank.” The news was picked up by The New York Times, which touted Philly’s approach as a “model for other cities like Detroit.” Land banks have been around for decades, but have become more popular of late. The idea is for cities to play a lead role in taking title to blighted properties that are tax delinquent or where there is no clear title, in order to more effectively convey that land to willing developers, with the goal of revitalizing neighborhoods.

The concept of a land bank makes sense for cities that have a large number of vacant properties. However, alone they are not silver bullets. As new land banks spring up across the country, it is important to take a close look at what needs to accompany them if we want to have real impact on America’s urban landscape.

Turning back the clock: In 2001 Philadelphia launched its $300 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) to reduce blight and rebuild neighborhoods. One of the program’s major goals was, “Improve the City’s ability to assemble and dispose of land for redevelopment and establish a Land Bank...” While NTI had some successes in assembling land for construction of affordable housing, by and large the program’s land bank component was considered less effective than its creators hoped. As NTI was rolling out, a policy report on the program cautioned, “Urban renewal strategies focused primarily on demolition and land assembly have not proven effective.”

In light of the mixed reviews of NTI’s land bank approach a decade ago, what makes us think the current effort will be more effective? To be fair, there is a big difference now, thanks to Pennsylvania’s state enabling legislation that went into effect last year. This legislation gave local governments stronger powers to quickly take title to tax delinquent properties, and to clear liens. If the state had granted these powers years ago, programs like NTI may have been more successful.

Despite its flaws, NTI deserves credit for attempting a multi-faceted, market-based approach to neighborhood planning and investment. NTI was very data-driven, based on analysis of neighborhood demographics and trends. Today’s land-bank boosters should learn from NTI’s flaws, but seek to emulate its strong points by again forging a comprehensive, multi-faceted, and data-driven approach.

One big issue is that land banks depend on developer interest. If the market is weak, it is more challenging to convey properties to willing buyers. The New York Times noted “how rapidly the Land Bank’s appeal will translate into changes from block to block depends greatly on the health and strength of the city’s real estate market.”

In order to stimulate development, we need more than a land bank. We need to increase investment in targeted loan & grant funds, and tax credit programs for urban areas. The City can play a role here, but much of this funding comes from state and federal government programs. Thus, we need to pressure our legislators to strengthen programs like Community Development Block Grants and New Markets Tax Credits.

Another issue is that some speculators sit on vacant and blighted properties for a long time, waiting for values to rise, so they can flip. This problem has a simple solution that is within the City’s grasp: Philadelphia barely taxes land—with our assessment dial turned all the way to taxing property. If we adjust the dial, to tax land and property more equally, it will make it more expensive to sit on blight, and incentivize more rapid redevelopment.

Finally, thriving neighborhoods need strong civic and community organizations. Neighborhoods that lack this type of infrastructure see slower and less strategic investment. Groups like Wells Fargo Regional Foundation have been working for years to empower local community partners. We should focus more resources on local groups in areas targeted for land banking to increase the potential that new development will be in line with a strategic, community-driven approach.

NTI presented a cautionary tale about how politics can get in the way. NTI dollars were divvied up by City Council. What was supposed to be a targeted, data driven approach was eventually watered down by local politics. It’s not a perfect world, and politics are bound to be involved, but as well as we can, we should try to keep the land bank effort insulated from influence by local political fiefdoms.

Philadelphia’s land bank is an important step, but we cannot sit back, relax and watch the magic happen. We need to make sure that the rest of the economic equation makes sense. If we build a full range of programs and incentives for developers, policies that encourage development, empowered community groups, and a land bank with inventory, then perhaps Philadelphia really is on its way to creating a nationally replicable model for success.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Two Invitations

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Happy new year! There are two exciting events coming up that I want to share with you, and invite you to attend.

First, it was a great honor to be invited to speak at the National Building Museum on the "legacy of urban renewal." I am speaking as part of a terrific program on January 22nd, including fomer D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams among the presenters.

Secondly, I hope you will come be part of the awards ceremony for the 8th annual Better Philadelphia Challenge and Edmund N. Bacon Prize on February 18th. The prize this year will go to former Pennsylvania Governor and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. It is thrilling for me to see this program that I helped establish years ago, now remain so vibrant, relevant, and impactful in its 8th year.

I hope to see you at one or both of these events. Best wishes for a prosperous 2014!


The Legacy of Urban Renewal

A city leader, a planner, and an historian discuss the long-term impact of mid-century urban renewal in D.C.’s Southwest quadrant and explore how othercities have learned from past large-scale developments. This program coincideswith the publication Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia by Greg Heller, interim president & CEO of American Communities Trust, who is one of our panelists and who will sign copies of the book after the program.
Other panelists include Eugenie L. Birch, co-director, Penn Institute for Urban Research, Lionel Lynch, principal, HR&A Advisors (moderator), and Anthony A. Williams, chief executive officer and executive director, Federal City Council and former Mayor Washington, DC (1999-2007). This program is presented in partnership with the Urban Land Institute Washington and the Penn Institute for Urban Research.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014 
6:30 PM - 8:00 PM
at the National Building Museum
401 F Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20001

Better Philadelphia Challenge & Edmund N. Bacon Prize

Join political powerhouse Ed Rendell as he presents an insightful talk in honor of receiving the 2014 Edmund N. Bacon Prize for his lifetime of success in promoting smart investment in transportation infrastructure. The Edmund N. Bacon Prize is bestowed annually on an accomplished figure who, like Bacon (Executive Director of Philadelphia's City Planning Commission from 1949-1970), has achieved outstanding success in urban planning, development, and design through conviction of vision, effective communication, and a commitment to improving their community.
Ed Rendell is well known both locally and nationally as one of the foremost advocates for serious investment in transportation infrastructure, as has been evidenced through his tenure as Mayor of Philadelphia, Governor of Pennsylvania, chair of the Democratic National Committee, and as a political commentator on many national news programs. In 2008 Rendell co-founded Building America's Future, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials dedicated to "bringing about a new era of U.S. investment in infrastructure that enhances our nation's prosperity and quality of life".
The Better Philadelphia Challenge annually gives university-level students from around the world the chance to address real-world urban design issues in Philadelphia that have application not only to our city, but to aging industrialized cities around the globe. This year's challenge asked university-level students to imagine the physical shape of Philadelphia in a future of autonomous vehicles. First prize is $5,000.

Tuesday, February 18th 2014
7:00-8:30 PM
at the Pennsylvania Convention Centers (theater, room 114)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Food Economy Projects and News

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Things have been busy recently, between my consulting projects and my book release. Progress is moving along well with American Communities Trust and the Baltimore Food Hub, and I'm working on a number of other projects as a Senior Advisor with Econsult Solutions. While my projects are diverse, involving real estate and economic development, much of my practice continues to focus on the food economy. Here are some featured projects I would like to share with you.
All best, Greg
New Report - U.S. Kitchen Incubators: An Industry Snapshot

Greg was lead author on a recent Econsult Solutions report "U.S. Kitchen Incubators: An Industry Snapshot." Over 135 kitchen incubators exist in the U.S., and during the past five years a significant number of new kitchen incubators have opened around the country, prompting the need for this national survey. Kitchen incubators are shared-use commercial kitchens, often with supportive services for early-stage culinary businesses. The purpose of this research is to inform operators of existing and planned kitchen incubators to better understand national models and approaches to culinary micro-enterprise development.
Check out this article by Next City on the Econsult Solutions report.
Lots of Press for the Baltimore Food Hub

Greg serves as the project manager withAmerican Communities Trust for the Baltimore Food Hub -- a planned 3.5-acre campus of facilities, services, and programs focused on enhancing Baltimore’s local food economy. The project includes a kitchen incubator, canning commissary, urban farming, workforce development and educational spaces, farm stand, and community gardens. The project will bring new life to beautiful historic buildings, play a major role in revitalizing East Baltimore, and create jobs and opportunities for the neighborhood, while serving as an asset that will benefit the city and region.
Check some out recent media coverage of the project:

Cincinnati Kitchen Accelerator Feasibility Study

Greg was the lead on Econsult Solutions' “kitchen accelerator feasibility study” for the Corporation for Findlay Market in Cincinnati, supported by the Haile U.S. Bank Foundation. The study concluded that Cincinnati can support a kitchen accelerator, and that there appears to be substantial unmet demand for such a project, as well as significant interest and enthusiasm from entrepreneurs and other stakeholders. Further, a kitchen accelerator appears to be badly needed in Cincinnati, and could fill an important void in efforts to develop the local food economy, empower micro-entrepreneurs, and support new jobs. Read about the project here.