Friday, October 31, 2008

Arts and Culture, and the New Philadelphia

It has been Phillies mania over the last couple of days, but this post is about a forum that took place earlier in the evening, before the final World Series game, in that ancient time when Philly’s baseball fate was still uncertain.

Young Involved Philadelphia hosted a panel discussion Wednesday night on “Philadelphia as a Center of Innovation.” The panelists were Meryl Levitz, James Kise, Ted Lewis, and Matty Hart. Interestingly, the discussion was directed almost exclusively on the topic of arts and culture as the heart of Philadelphia’s new, younger, hipper image.

Meryl Levitz talked about the challenges of attracting both visitors and permanent residents. She stressed the competitive advantage of Philadelphia to attract New Yorkers who want to own an affordable home and live in a transit-friendly, cosmopolitan place. However, she cautioned that many transplants from New York seek to maintain their NYC identity while living in their adopted city. Naturally this emerging dynamic creates serious challenges.

Jim Kise discussed his experiences in planning the Avenue of the Arts, and was emphatic in his belief in the potential for the Avenue of the Arts North (i.e., from City Hall to about Lehigh Avenue). He noted the strategy spearheaded by then-Mayor Rendell for Avenue of the Arts South, of attracting new development for several vacant pieces of land that were close enough together to build a new continuity of place, and establish an identity. This strategy will be critical for Avenue of the Arts North, but even more challenging considering the much larger distance and greater disinvestment.

Ted Lewis discussed the important role of artists in the early stages of gentrification (my word, not his). He cited the usual examples in New York (SoHo, Chelsea, Williamsburg), and stressed the potential for this type of pioneering in Philadelphia. He also discussed the trend of artists pioneering and then being priced out of neighborhoods. He raised the important point of the need for new policies to protect affordable housing and live-work spaces in revitalized neighborhoods with rising home prices.

(For more on this topic, see my related post from 10/23/08 below – "Equitable Gentrification" – and my op-ed in the Inquirer from June 2007).

Finally, Matty Hart talked about the role of artist as entrepreneur. He felt that the City and its Commerce Department were missing out on strategic investments to assist artists, by failing to view them as the small business owners that they essentially are. He suggested competitive loan programs for artists to purchase a printing press or other expensive supplies.

* * *

Overall, I was disappointed by the extent to which the discussion of arts and culture focused on the Avenue of the Arts and the Kimmel Center. Certainly all of the panelists are accomplished and knowledgeable leaders in their fields. However, Philadelphia is changing in profound ways, and I wonder whether the players who have been working here for years and decades understand the younger, hipper Philadelphia, and what it means for our social and civic landscape.

This question reminds me of a topic discussed by Mayor Nutter’s new sustainability coordinator, Mark Alan Hughes, in a Daily News column back in 2007. Hughes wrote: “THE BIG THEME of 2007 is this: We need a mayor who can manage the tensions between old and new Philadelphians. … [A] mayor who sees the potential bonds between new and old Philadelphians, who sees the ways in which each is necessary to the other's prosperity, is a mayor prepared to lead Philadelphia out of the dead-end Street and toward a better place.”

The existence of an old and new Philadelphia is clear: culturally, socially, and most glaringly, geographically. One of the speakers Wednesday night mentioned Francisville, and I heard a whisper from the young crowd, “where is Francisville?” I heard similar responses when I used to tell people I worked in Parkside. I recently got a blank stare from another young, hip Philadelphian when I mentioned Bartram’s Garden.

The fact is that the new Philadelphia is bringing many exciting and important elements to our city, rebuilding its population and reviving ailing neighborhoods. However the new Philadelphia is creating sort of a bubble within Philadelphia that overlaps with some elements of the old, while staying relatively separated from the massive rest of the world which is Philadelphia.

In New York, Chicago, Boston and other major cities, residents in one area seem to at least be aware of the expanse of neighborhoods and opportunities that exist throughout the rest of the city. Why is Philadelphia different in this regard? How can we bring a new level of awareness (if not understanding) between Fishtown transplants and Fishtown natives; families in Center City and families in El Centro del Oro; Passyunk Avenue and Germantown Avenue; Manayunk and Mantua; Parkwood and Parkside; East Falls and Eastwick?

Sitting in the audience Wednesday night, taking in the discussion, it struck me that perhaps arts and culture is the perfect venue for starting to bridge this gap. In other cities, arts initiatives have had a powerful impact in connecting neighborhoods and bringing to the surface the secret stories of a city’s people and communities. Certainly there are some similar initiatives that have been attempted in Philadelphia, but nothing in a venue and scale that has really captured the interest and attention of the old or the new Philadelphia in a significant way.

The fact is, the real arts and culture scene in Philadelphia spans the city’s 135 square miles, its dozens of communities, its range of ethnic and cultural identities. This is a powerful force that we should harness. What was certainly clear Wednesday night is that the conversation about arts and culture, and the new urban renaissance of Philadelphia needs to evolve and expand. It has to become citywide in scope, more advanced in its treatment of urban demographic shifts, and more dynamic in its approach.

The conversation that YIP started Wednesday night ended in time for Obama’s speech and the Phillies’ World Series win (!), but left more questions unanswered than answered. This is a dialogue that will need to continue with more players, more time, and much more creativity.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Equitable Gentrification

I was hoping the Inquirer would print my response (below) to an article published on October 15th about the Centennial District in West Philadelphia. However, it does not look like they are going to do so. The article I am responding to is here. Enjoy...

To the Editor:

In the Inquirer’s article about the Centennial District in West Philadelphia, Stephan Salisbury writes, “But while residents say they strongly support the district, there is concern that longtime and low-income residents might be squeezed out by gentrification” (“Envisioning a Centennial District in western Fairmount Park” 10/15/2008).

Having worked in Parkside, been a member of the Centennial District Steering Committee, and managed studies and grants that impact the Centennial District, I am very familiar with Parkside – its potential and problems. The potential is extremely exciting. However, the threat of displacement through gentrification is very real. Parkside is becoming a hot area, with plenty of real-estate speculators hedging their bets that this neighborhood will take off.

Parkside has a high vacancy rate and a relatively strong homeownership rate. There is room for plenty of new residents and businesses to move in, without displacement – that is, if existing homeowners, renters, and business owners can afford to stay. Although a number of stakeholders have vowed major displacement will not happen, I see no reason why the trend that has occurred in so many hot neighborhoods will not happen in Parkside.

However, we can buck the trend. The City – the Mayor’s Office, Commerce Department, and City Council – need to act now to adopt new policies that enable “equitable gentrification” – revitalization with minimal displacement of existing residents, allowing the people of the community to enjoy the fruits of their neighborhood’s renewal.

For years I have advocated for the City to adopt these kinds of policies, including increased thresholds for the senior tax freeze program; a property tax deferment program for low-income households; transition counseling for residents and business owners; affordable housing set asides (i.e., inclusionary zoning); incentives for mixed-income, senior, and rental housing development; and a greater nexus between existing programs and the homeowners and business owners who need them.

Without these City programs, targeted at enabling equitable gentrification, Parkside will improve and thrive, but the people who live there will not be able to afford to stay. If that occurs, the success of the Centennial District will be a hollow victory, indeed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

John Norquist in Philadelphia

John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee and President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, will be the recipient of the 2008 Award for Professional Excellence, bestowed by the Ed Bacon Foundation at its annual awards ceremony on Tuesday December 2nd in Philadelphia. Awards will also go to the student winners of the Foundation's annual urban design competition. More information on the event here.

The Candidates' Positions on Infrastructure Spending

This article on highlights the policies proposed by Senator Obama and Senator McCain to address the nation's infrastructure funding crisis.

The problem, of course is "it would take $1.6 trillion over five years to address the nation's infrastructure problems, according to a 2005 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the country's system a 'D.'"

In addition, "Fifty years ago, the federal government allocated 10% of its non-defense spending on infrastructure...Nowadays, the amount has shriveled to between 3.5% and 4%."

The solutions in a nutshell: "John McCain, the Republican nominee, advocates shifting financing from earmarks to high-priority projects, while Barack Obama, his Democratic challenger, would create a federally-funded bank to invest in improvement projects."

The article then assesses the opinions of "experts" on the two plans:

"Most applaud McCain for his desire to end earmarks, which they say divert money from critical projects. ...Otherwise, McCain has offered little insight into how much federal funding he'd set aside for infrastructure and what projects he'd support."

"Obama has consistently supported greater spending on infrastructure. They ["experts"] were also pleased he did not advocate suspending the federal gas tax. Most favor the creation of an infrastructure bank that can harness the financial power of the private sector, which is increasingly interested in leasing or investing in highways and airports."

However, the bottom line: "$60 billion over 10 years is a far cry from what's needed to address the nation's crumbling roads and bridges..."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Help Plan the Greater Philadelphia Region

My last post highlighted problems and opportunities in the way we grow as a region. Now be part of the solution...

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) will hold public workshops throughout the bi-state region to gather public input that will help shape the region’s long-range plan. Offering food, networking and an opportunity for individual voices to be heard, the workshops will examine the issues that we face today as well as those that will be with us in the coming years.

DVRPC’s Plan will provide guidance for land use decisions and determine the region’s transportation investments throughout the next 25 years. The Plan will also address issues such as combating sprawl, reinvestment in older cities and suburbs, alleviating traffic congestion, and will deal with environmental and economic issues likely to impact the Delaware Valley.

Workshops will be scheduled for all nine counties in the metropolitan Philadelphia area, the first to be announced include the following:

Philadelphia Workshop: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 21 5:30 P.M.
Loews Philadelphia Hotel, 1200 Market Street, Philadelphia

Gloucester County Workshop: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 29 5:30 P.M.
Office of Government Services Building, 1200 North Delsea Drive, Clayton, NJ

Camden County Workshop: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30 5:30 P.M.
Cherry Hill Public Library, 1100 Kings Highway North, Cherry Hill, NJ

Details for workshops in Burlington, Mercer, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties are coming soon.

For more information about DVRPC’s long-range plan and the Public Workshop announcement, please visit:

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What If?

Image: DVRPC

Two posts ago I talked about the high cost of our auto-centric, sprawling development pattern in many parts of our nation. Many Americans see this cost at the gasoline pump, but what are the true costs for continuing to build farther away from where people work and shop, only accessible by car?

What are the costs in building new roads, new schools, new infrastructure? What are the costs to economic development, to commuting time, to the environment? These are the questions that a new study by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission seeks to answer.

The study, titled “Making the Land Use Connection: Regional What-If Scenario Analysis” is part of a series of documents analyzing the new long-range plan for the greater Philadelphia region in 2035. It is available in pdf format.

The study uses DVRPC’s modeling tools to simulate a number of factors in three scenarios.

“Trend” projects out the current growth patterns for the region.

“Recentralization” accounts for more growth in urban areas, towns, and older suburbs, bringing jobs and housing back into the region’s existing centers.

“Sprawl” shows an acceleration of growth, expanding farther into the region’s outlying areas than anticipated in the Trend scenario.

Clearly, with such a complicated range of factors, these models are not perfect. However, they use the same methodology for all three scenarios, bringing a consistent and controlled analysis of the costs and benefits of how we grow as a region.

The study describes the methodology and explains, “The main differentiation between the scenarios is the location of future population and employment by planning area. All other assumptions between the scenarios are identical.”

Here are some highlights from the study’s findings:

• The Recentralization scenario saves 163,000 acres from development compared to the Trend scenario. This is an area roughly the size of Camden County.

• Under the Sprawl scenario, an additional 309,000 acres will be developed in the region compared to the Trend scenario. This is an area roughly the size of Montgomery County.

• The Recentralization scenario saves 71,800 acres from agricultural development compared to the Trend scenario, and an additional 167,500 agricultural acres compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario could reduce annual VMT [vehicle miles traveled] in 2035 by 1.7 billion compared to the Trend scenario, and by 3 billion compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• Compared to the Trend scenario, the Recentralization scenario could save 1.25 working days of time spent driving in 2035 per capita.

• In 2035, the Recentralization scenario could produce person hours of delay due to congestion by 24 million hours region-wide, or four hours per capita, compared to the Trend scenario.

• Less driving in the Recentralization scenario translates into an average of 4,299 fewer vehicle crashes in 2035 compared to the Sprawl scenario and 2,200 fewer crashes than in the Trend scenario.

• The average household in the Recentralization scenario will require 2.3 percent less energy to power, heat, cool, and transport than an average household under the trend scenario.

• Under the Recentralization scenario, the sum of CO2 emissions from residential and vehicle energy use can be decreased by nearly 3.7 million tons in 2035…compared to the Trend scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario is estimated to save 24 million gallons of water per day in the region…

• The Trend scenario anticipates increasing jobs in disadvantaged…communities by approximately three percent over the 30-year period.

Now let’s talk money. What are the costs/savings of all this?

• Excess time and fuel wasted in congestion in the Sprawl scenario could cost the region an extra $909 million, or $148 per capita, more than the Trend scenario in 2035; and $1.57 billion, or $255 per capita…compared to the Recentralization scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario is estimated to save the average household $300 in annual auto and utility expenses compared to the Trend scenario and nearly $1,300 compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• Total supporting infrastructure cost for schools, local roads, sewers and water is $25 billion more under the Sprawl scenario than under the Trend scenario. … By more fully utilizing existing infrastructure, the Recentralization scenario could save nearly $3 billion total dollars…

This last figure shows the true burden of sprawl on our society. The costs of supportive infrastructure in the Trend scenario are $10.8 billion, in the Recentralization scenario $7.38 billion, and in the Sprawl scenario $35.6 billion. It matters how we grow our region and nation. The study explains this fact more fully:

“As population grows in previously undeveloped areas, new infrastructure and increased revenue from real estate taxes generate healthy fiscal conditions. Population growth, though, brings the need for additional services, and as infrastructure ages, it becomes expensive to maintain and replace, straining municipal budgets. As a result, over time, taxes need to be raised, fees increased, services reduced, or additional debt incurred. Tax increases and service cuts eventually lead to lower property values and/or outmigration, and the municipality begins losing its tax base and risks falling into distress.”

If we as a nation wish to continue to expand farther and farther away from our developed areas, our transportation infrastructure, our jobs and services, then there is a real cost to our society. As the DVRPC report shows, it is potentially a cost we cannot afford.

However, if we make a committed decision, as a nation, to change the way we grow, travel, and live, if we reinvest in urbanized areas and their supportive infrastructure, then the cost savings to our society and our environment, will be profound.