Friday, February 20, 2009

Free Pretzel! (read to the end)

Image: Neighborhood Information System

Last night, PennDesign hosted one of its Conversation Series events, in which a national expert and a local expert on the same topic interview each other. Last night’s event was titled “Gentrification Dangers and Neighborhood Change Opportunities.”

The speakers were John Kromer, Philadelphia’s accomplished, former housing director and professor at the Fels Institute; and George Galster, a professor at Wayne State University, and nationally prominent voice on issues of gentrification and community change.

At one point Kromer asked Galster what policy intervention he would recommend for the situation where a neighborhood gentrifies, property taxes go up, and low-income, long-term residents cannot afford to pay their higher taxes. Often they have to sell out before their houses reach full value, and move out of the neighborhood.

Galster answered: create a program to defer their property taxes until time of sale or transfer.

Interesting… That’s the same policy that I promoted in my op-eds in the Inquirer and Daily News back in 2007 (links here are to my op-eds). Let me explain why this policy intervention would be so important.

Philadelphia currently has the highest poverty rate of the top ten most populous U.S. cities. At the same time, Philadelphia has many low-income neighborhoods with a high homeownership rate.

According to the Neighborhood Information System, the citywide average homeownership rate is 59%, and neighborhoods with the lowest homeownership rates are still over 20%. Yet over 30% of homeowners in many neighborhoods have household incomes of less than $20,000/year (See the map above).

At the same time, Philadelphia is a hot city. A recent Pew Research Center survey reported that Philadelphia is considered as desirable a place to live as New York, Dallas, and Chicago. Numerous neighborhoods in Philadelphia have undergone stunning revitalizations over the past decade, and our housing values have been far less impacted by the economic downturn than in most other cities.

These facts place Philadelphia in a unique position. We are a hot city with lots of low-income homeowners. If we can figure out how to keep low-income, long-term residents in their homes while their neighborhoods gentrify, not only have we improved those residents’ quality of life and contributed toward building a mixed-income community, but we have also given those people some serious equity once their home values increase.

If we can make it affordable for all of these low-income homeowners to stay in their homes while their communities increase in value, we have just taken a major bite out of the city’s poverty rate.

The solution should be to instate a property tax deferment program, marketed by the City to communities that are about to undergo transition (i.e., before property values rise noticeably). Importantly, this is a revenue-neutral policy; the city would eventually receive the back taxes (unlike with the 10-year tax abatement).

However, time is of the essence. With each community that gentrifies without this program in place, we miss a fragile opportunity to rebuild our tax base, reduce our city’s poverty rate, and build stronger neighborhoods. Sadly, we have already missed some key opportunities, but it is certainly not too late to capture the value of this program.

As I explained in my op-eds, this deferment program is just one component of a comprehensive approach that attracts new investment, while protecting existing communities and building equity for low- and moderate-income residents. While the deferment program is just one tool, it is an important one, and this is the right time to do it.

Both speakers last night agreed that the City needs to be proactive in this economic downturn, so as to be properly positioned when the market improves. This is the right time to instate a property tax deferment program, so that it is on the books in a few years when we may need it again. Reminder: it’s revenue neutral.

So, if there are any policy makers out there reading this, the time has come to make this initiative happen! You don’t have to take my word for it, listen to the national experts. Tell you what, I’ll give a free soft pretzel to the first Councilman, legislative aid, or agency head who makes this happen. If the Mayor wants to announce it himself, I’ll give him two pretzels!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dear Republicans: It's time for Policy, Not Politics

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus bill) is now the law of the land. I have read every public version of this bill, and let me tell you, it fluctuated dramatically as the House and Senate grappled with it. While the end result is relatively positive, the process of enacting this bill was a sad example of partisan divisiveness.

It is interesting to compare the politics behind this bill’s passage to a rough historical parallel. In 1933 Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), creating executive regulatory power over private banks, and enabling massive spending through the Public Works Administration (PWA).

Gail Radford, a historian who specializes in the New Deal, wrote in her 1996 book, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era:

“When Roosevelt sent Congress his National Industrial Recovery bill…he stressed that it should be passed immediately with no changes so he could move forward straightaway with his recovery program. Probably an even more compelling reason for insisting on no changes was that, since the NIRA was a complicated bundle of compromises he knew it might totally unravel once Congress started tinkering. The deteriorating economic situation along with the new president’s enormous popularity enabled him to achieve essentially what he wanted. The NIRA passed through both chambers virtually unchanged in less than a month. Since Congress was under great pressure to act quickly, there was little debate on the proposed legislation.”

I guess history does not always repeat itself. Sigh.

Today, in 2009, we are embarking on a period of attempted economic recovery with one political party standing stubbornly in opposition. However, in reality, this bill was a pretty good balance between liberal and conservative economic strategies, interest groups, and regions of the country. The bill holds a combination of tax relief, loan and grant programs, and direct spending.

The argument made by Republicans in Congress that the bill is too large, and is a “spending bill,” is ridiculous. Economist Dean Baker wrote on his blog: “Spending that is not stimulus is like cash that is not money. Spending is stimulus, spending is stimulus. Any spending will generate jobs. It is that simple.”

The Republican opposition is overtly about politics and not policy. Why do I say this? Because most major conservative economists have said that the Recovery Act’s approach is basically the right one. Yet Republicans in Congress keep asserting positions that are not supported by economists or policy makers of any political leaning.

Bruce Bartlett, who was policy advisor to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, believes that a combination of short-term stimulus spending and long-term tax credits is the answer. And he argues in his column in Forbes that we have no time to wait:

“The problem is that fiscal stimulus needs to be injected right now to counter the liquidity trap. … [I]f much of the stimulus doesn't come online until next year, when we are likely to be past the worst of the slowdown, then crowding out will greatly diminish the effectiveness of the stimulus, just as the critics argue.”

Fortunately, the goal of the Act is to get projects started quickly over this year and next. Some of the measures are not going to kick in until 2011, but much of this money will be pumped into the economy much sooner.

Edward Glaesser, a Harvard professor and one of the nation’s most conservative economists, disagrees with Bartlett on one point. He supports investing in infrastructure, but is critical of spending it on “shovel-ready projects,” arguing that major infrastructure spending is good, but needs more long-term planning. However, overall, he is supportive of the approach in the Act. He asserts in an op-ed in the Boston Globe:

“What will minimize the risks of a fiscal fiasco? There are three plausible plans: new tax cuts for middle-income Americans; investing in infrastructure; and providing aid to states.”

Well... the Recovery Act does all of these things. The final legislation has $288 billion for tax relief, $144 billion going to state and local governments, and $111 billion for infrastructure.

Certainly both Glaesser and Bartlett have criticisms of this legislation; however, their criticisms were not reflected in the rhetoric argued by Republicans in Congress. The Recovery Act turned out to be a pretty sound compromise. The fact that not a single Republican in the House voted for it showed a preference for divisive partisanship over a true will to develop a balanced solution.

It’s clearly about nothing but politics, and we don’t have time for that kind of pettiness with the economy in such bad shape.

Overall, despite the delay and the divisive politics, the Recovery Act turned out fairly well. The major criticism I have is that it is not big enough, and that there is far from enough money for rail transit. Economist Dean Baker queries, “There is a question of whether the spending will go to areas that will provide benefits, long-term or short-term, to the economy…” In this regard, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is far from perfect. However, popular wisdom says that additional stimulus bills will follow. Stay tuned.

'Duel' On JFK Boulevard

I am a bicyclist, not out of any particularly “green” sensibility. I simply never learned to drive, it wasn’t worth my time; I grew up taking transit or biking everywhere. Therefore it is not too ironic that I ended up interning for the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. My preferred route home from the Municipal Services Building where I work, across from City Hall, is to sling up JFK Boulevard till I hit 30th Street Station, from where I can cut across Drexel and Penn’s campus till I get home. JFK is wide, and as a rule, from 15th street till 21st, I take one lane and stick to it, it is too dangerous to start on the right lane and gradually move left till I hit what is the proper lane to cross the Schuylkill.

Generally this works fine for me, occasionally an angry motorist will honk and pass me by quickly. Except for today. At 16th a large pick-up truck started honking at me. I yelled back that I was within the bounds of the law (after all I am not allowed on the sidewalks) and ignored him. He kept honking, all the way till we reached the overpass to get to 30th Street. Now there were several things odd (and frightening) about this. For one, he had multiple opportunities to pass me, and yet he insisted on tailing me and honking, rarely lifting his hand from the horn. He also assumed, somehow that I voted for McCain. Considering that McCain did not have an Urban Policy team, nor are Republicans generally associated with environmentalism, I do not understand how he got that impression. One of his favorite invectives was “I bet you went to college.” Which only compounded my confusion, how does one hate a campaign which glorified in its lack of college elitism, and college educated professionals, I don’t know. Frankly throughout it all I was afraid for my life. If he was intent on not passing me, and he was that angry, there was ample reason to believe that he might also try and hit me. Oddly enough the more he yelled the calmer and slower I went, it seemed the far more appropriate way to handle this. In some way I was hoping he would hit me, after all I was just a phone call away from the Deputy Mayor. That and being a sometime journalist, I was pretty sure this would have made a wonderful story.

All of which is to say, I suppose, that one can advocate for more bike lanes, bike stations and bike sharing, there is also something to be said for manners. Transportation specialists have noted that women tend to be far more hesitant to bike in cities, largely because they are afraid of conditions and drivers and I am sure there are plenty of men who are too. Without encouraging a cultural climate conducive to biking, well, we have quite a few blocks to go before we can turn off and away from the assholes behind us.

BTW for those wondering why I used the word duel in the title.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Home Buy Now

Philadelphia recently retooled its employer-assisted housing program, "Home Buy Now." It will be interesting to see whether this program can have a significant impact to warrant its $1.5 million in public dollars (administered through the Commerce Department).

The idea is that participating employers contribute $5,000 toward the cost of employees' home purchases, with the City matching the employer's contribution, and the developer providing a larger contribution to create a total benefit of an estimated $17,500 toward the house cost. The house must be in Philadelphia to utilize the full savings.

Naturally the real-estate community is on-board, and the City believes that this program could increase the City's population and tax base. The program is based on a similar effort in Chicago. Check out the coverage of this program in the Business Journal.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Wrapup: Mayors Institute and American Recovery

Image Montage (sources linked here): Background image of Charleston (left) and Chicago's Millennium Park (right), Foreground from left to right are Mayor Riley of Charleston, the MICD logo, Mayor Nutter, and the front page of the New York Daily News (October 30, 1975).

Happy Friday! This has been a big week, with Congress finalizing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in D.C. and the Mayors’ Institute on City Design’s (MICD) national session going on in Philly.

Let’s talk about the latter topic first.

Mayor Nutter and mayors from five other cities are meeting in intensive workshops all day today, and half of the day tomorrow, to deal with design problems in their cities. In my op-ed in the Daily News two days ago, I praised Mayor Nutter for inviting MICD to Philly, and for taking the initiative to educate himself on city design issues.

I also mentioned in my op-ed the precedent for mayors going through this program, and then spearheading national-headline-making, city-changing projects (like Millennium Park in Chicago), focusing on improving their city’s urban landscape and national image. However, design does not have to be about big projects; a focus on design is a mindset that informs a broad range of a mayor’s decisions.

This point was clear in a keynote address made last night by Joe Riley, the charismatic former mayor of Charleston, SC, and one of the biggest advocates for the Mayors’ Institute program. Riley spent his career focusing on investing huge amounts of money and attention on the quality of his city’s public realm, and the results have been stunning.

Riley built parks downtown, filled in parking lots with new development, focused on putting people and excitement on the downtown streets, spent huge amounts of political and financial capital on rehabilitating historic homes, he put the stadium on the waterfront (despite strong political opposition regarding the land costs), and focused on issues like planting trees, and making sure that the sidewalk materials looked the way he envisioned.

The key is that Mayor Riley focused on the fundamentals of how to build great cities. He had to build a parking garage, but insisted that the architect make it not look like a parking garage, including ground-floor retail. In the new convention center, the developer wanted to connect the parking directly to the interior of the convention center; Mayor Riley said “no,” insisting on patrons having to walk outside, laying the foundation for a vibrant city street along the convention center’s edge, with shops and restaurants.

Along the way, Riley had to fight opposition founded in half a century of auto-centric, suburban-focused American mindset. He wanted ground-floor retail on one street, but his department heads opposed because they would have to narrow the street to add a sidewalk. Riley insisted on narrowing the street and valuing the pedestrian over the automobile. He fought several motel projects, making the point that if you want to build a context, a destination, a vibrant urban place, you need the right uses, the right design, and the right infrastructure.

One important area of Riley’s focus was affordable housing. He spent enormous public dollars preserving historic homes, scattered throughout the city, and reusing them as affordable housing. It is beautiful housing, in good locations that contributes to the urban fabric. Riley insisted that we should never again build public housing that group low-income people together in projects. Why? In his words, “Because it ignores every lesson in the western hemisphere.” The solution is scattering public housing throughout the city, integrating a unit here or there into existing neighborhoods. Sure, it’s much more expensive and harder to maintain. But to Mayor Riley, it’s the only option.

In reference to this point, I look at Philadelphia’s recent housing projects that are new, low-rise homes, but that still group the poor together in ghettoized projects. The Philadelphia Housing Authority is so proud of them, even though they embody a failed, outdated approach that depresses communities, and hurts our urban fabric.

Mayor Riley’s speech was deeply inspiring. I looked around and saw a number of people with tears in their eyes. The reason it was so inspiring was that we saw a public leader before us who was making decisions to improve the lives of the people in his city. He fought hard to make his city’s public realm nurturing, inspiring, vibrant, and beautiful.

Riley talked about the guys in the corner liquor store, with guns strapped to their belts, who stopped the Mayor to tell him how beautiful the new planted area along a local roadway was. He recalled seeing a suburban friend of his making a rare trip downtown. The Mayor asked his friend what in the world he was doing walking downtown. The friend told the Mayor he loved to walk downtown now, because it’s so beautiful again.

It is impossible to spend too much money and political will on building a beautiful city. The impacts are profound. A focus on city design shapes the city’s physical environment, economic development, safety, the quality of its neighborhoods, and its international image. But, the investment has to be done right. Our convention center in Philadelphia, currently underway, is an urban design disaster. It is going to kill several blocks right in the heart of the city with blank walls. You can spend a lot of money on design and still get it wrong, missing out on the positive impacts.

Mayor Nutter knows this. He’s going through his training today and tomorrow exactly because city design is a priority to him. It is clear that he is committed to Philadelphia’s urban planning and design. I, for one, look forward to seeing what he can do to rival the great work of Charleston, Chicago, and other cities that have benefited from this executive training course through the Mayors’ Institute.

* * * *

Ok, let’s shift gears and talk about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Senate cut out a lot of important elements from the bill, but it looks like some of them are back in. With the bill close to adoption, it seems clear that there is going to be a nice chunk of money available for areas like transportation projects, economic development, small business loans, job training, housing, etc.

One of the speakers at MICD’s kickoff forum recalled the famous New York Daily News cover in 1975, with the headline “[President] Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The point is, for decades, cities have had a tough time getting federal support. The American Recovery Act is not the most urban-friendly bill, but it is certainly going to provide important dollars that can be used for major urban investment. Urban America still has an uphill PR battle, but we’re on our way.

Mayor Nutter has been in D.C. lobbying for Philadelphia. This fair city, like every other city, has a project wish list. Inga Saffron wrote about Philadelphia’s stimulus wish list today, explaining that the Mayor’s team of Deputy Mayors Rina Cutler and Andy Altman, and Sustainability Coordinator Mark Alan Hughes put together a list of projects that will strengthen Philadelphia in the long run. The only problem is that they are not very sexy. Green infrastructure, water main replacement, weatherization… not exactly projects that can get the public jazzed or make national headlines.

Inga quoted me in the piece, stating, “At some point, Mayor Nutter is going to have to do something he's going to be remembered for.” Now, don’t get me wrong, Philadelphia’s wish list projects are very smart and very necessary. However, looking at other cities wish lists, they had these kinds of projects, plus one big, visionary project – usually a new light rail line. Sure, there will probably be future stimulus spending. Sure, the big project probably won’t get funded now. But now is the time to put the big vision on the table.

Why? Several reasons. First, projects like Millennium Park and the big dig in Boston took a long time to drum up the political backing, the funding, and the public support. It’s time to get started, if this administration wants to put its mark on a big, transformative project. I know, in the spirit of Jane Jacobs we should look at the human-scale, but big projects are still important, too. Especially recreation and transit projects have the ability to improve the city in a major way, strengthening quality of life, while making national headlines.

Pushing visionary projects gets public support. This goes back to my earlier post about the administration’s great accomplishments, and lack of sound PR to gain public support for its work. With a list of critical but unexciting projects, the public will feel like we’re letting the stimulus opportunity go down the drain. Throw an exciting project into the mix of the public dialogue!

Even if the big project is not a top priority, just having it on the list shows that the mayor is thinking big, pushing for an exciting project that we can all rally behind. It’s good for public perception. We need both pragmatism and excitement. This unprecedented stimulus bill has the potential to let city administrations get the good PR from pushing both ends. Currently in Philly, we’re only being pragmatic.

I don’t want to end on that sour note. Mayor Nutter has only been in office for just over a year. He’s going through the Mayors’ Institute as we speak. There is time to make big things happen for Philadelphia, to maximize our federal dollars, and build excitement amongst the public, while putting Philadelphia on the national stage. Uncertainty lies ahead, but now is the time to celebrate how far we’ve come, and the potential of our urban future.

How can you help celebrate? Reception. Tonight. Philadelphia Center for Architecture. 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Food, booze, mayors, merriment.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

City Design Comes to Philly

Please take a look at my op-ed piece published in today's Daily News. You can view the piece here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Reception to Celebrate Design in Philadelphia

The Mayors’ Institute on City Design will host a national session in Philadelphia, with intensive workshops for mayors from across the U.S. Please join us in welcoming the Institute and its participants, and celebrating the future of city design in Philadelphia.

Friday, February 13, 2009
6:00-8:00 PM
At the Center for Architecture (1218 Arch St.)
Free and open to the public
Light food and drink provided


Space is limited. Please RSVP to by February 10th.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Where We Live or Philly is Doin' Just Fine

The Pew Research Center came out with a new Social and Demographic Trends Report on January 29th, with some interesting data. The report looks at where Americans live and where they would like to live. It breaks down this data by race, education, income, and political leanings. It also deals with issues of perceived problems and values that factor into choosing a place to live (e.g., good environment for raising children, cultural resources, etc.)

The element that caught my attention was Philadelphia’s place in the list of “Americans Most Popular Big Cities.” Philadelphia is ranked 17th, tied with New York, Dallas, and Chicago. Most of the cities ranked above Philadelphia are either on the west coast or in Florida (with the exceptions of Boston and Atlanta). Not surprisingly, nationwide, west coast cities are hotter than east coast cities.

What does all this mean? Well, for a city that many thought was headed the way of Detroit, in the early 1990s, I would say Philadelphia is looking pretty good. In fact, I would dare say that Philadelphia has pushed its way over the tipping point, and seems destined, for the foreseeable future, to remain as one of America’s up-and-coming big cities, headed on a positive trajectory.

One of Philadelphia’s weakest points in recent times has been its level of educational attainment. In Center City, 79% of residents hold a college degree. However, citywide, that number is only about 18%. Compared to citywide rates of higher-education attainment in the other big cities, that rate is dismal.

However, the Pew data shows a positive indicator, in that regard. According to the Pew report, Philadelphia is in the top ten cities preferred by college graduates. The report states that 38% of college graduates surveyed said they would like to live in Philadelphia. That rate ties with Washington D.C., and is just below Portland and Boston.

Also interesting is the fact that Philadelphia is one of the top five cities to have the largest difference between preference amongst college grads and those who hold a high-school diploma or less. Only 16% of the latter group reported a preference to live in Philadelphia. Thus, the historic, blue-collar workshop of the world is now viewed as a less attractive place for those with lower educational attainment, and an attractive place for those with higher educational attainment.

This is the most pertinent information to Philadelphia; however, there is other interesting national data that deserves some attention. Currently, 31% of those surveyed live in cities, 26% live in suburbs, 26% live in small towns, and 16% live in rural areas. However, when surveyed for where they would ideally want to live, 23% said cities, 25% said suburbs (about the same as the existing), 30% said small town, and 21% said rural. The conclusion is that there seems to be a preference for small towns and rural living (whatever that means, anymore).

The Pew report shows a breakdown of who lives where and who would like to live where. The data is broken down by age, gender, family income, race/ethnicity, education, and political party identification. The who-lives-where and the who-wants-to-live-where are pretty similar. Despite the fact that most people surveyed said they would like to live somewhere else, their ideal living environment (city, suburb, small town, rural) seemed to match where they actually lived.

However, there was one notable variance to this: respondents age 18-29 want to live in cities. Currently 28% of that age group reported living in a city, whereas 40% of that group reported wanting to live in a city. That was by far the highest jump between the two sections for any age group or living type area. Those of us who deal with urban demographics know that there is a new preference for young people to live in cities, but did we realize that the figure was so high?

A final tidbit has to do with political preference. Since 1952 Philadelphia has had a Democratic mayor, and is widely considered a liberal stronghold. However, the Pew data reports that 28% of Democratic respondents showed a preference for Philadelphia, 26% of Independent respondents showed a preference for Philadelphia, and 17% of Republicans showed a preference for Philadelphia. Those numbers are respectively similar when the terms liberal, moderate, and conservative are used.

First of all, those preference numbers are pretty high (Detroit was in single digits for all groups), continuing to support the point that Philadelphia has become a much more desirable place to live. However, more importantly, while there is a liberal leaning in preference for Philly, the preference is much more even than I would have expected. This indicates that Philadelphia seems to appeal to a broader spectrum of the population than one might have surmised.

In any case, that’s enough number crunching for one day. If you want more, check out the full report Here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Long-Range Vision for Transit

Image: "DVRPC Long-Range Vision for Transit"

The potential for a major federal stimulus package provides the opportunity to think big about the future of transit in the U.S. This is an exciting possibility for the Philadelphia region, whose transit systems have been underfunded for too long.

While it is unclear how much funding will become available, and for what purposes, the good news is that the Philadelphia region is thinking big. DVRPC recently came out with a report called "DVRPC Long-Range Vision for Transit," highlighting four "vision narratives," containing rail projects that "have completed or are undergoing detailed study to assess their feasibility..."

With four major commuter rail carriers serving the Philadelphia region, it is clear that this kind of thinking must be viewed at a regional level. The four narratives are:

1. "Service extension in the urban core:" including extension of the Broad Street Subway to the Navy Yard and north along Roosevelt Boulevard, with a bus-rapid-transit alternative for the latter project.

2. "Transit as an anchor for waterfront development:" including new rail along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, and connection with Transit First bus service.

3. "Reconnecting and reinforcing older suburbs:" including PATCO extension to Glassboro, with connections to other systems.

4. "Improving transitional, reverse, and intersuburb commutes:" including the construction of the Paoli Transportation Center, extension of the Route 100 High Speed Line to King of Prussia, an extension of the R6 Line to Phoenixville, and restoration of rail service to Quakertown.

The report is clear that "These narratives do not represent our exclusive regional priorities, nor do they seek to identify the projects that are most feasible, or closest to advancement." Instead, DVRPC's report expresses the kind of visionary outlook that places the bar high, and shows that our region is working to position itself competitively for transportation funding now and in the future.

View the full report here.