Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mayor Nutter Has a PR Problem

Image: Photo in frame from, electronically modified

Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter is not having an easy go of it these days. Almost daily there are articles in the papers documenting the public outrage about the administration’s position on closing libraries, and its support of a downtown casino. The Mayor has traveled around the city getting booed at public meetings.

It is hard to believe that this is the same Michael Nutter who won decisively in the 2007 Democratic primary with 37% of the vote, beating two powerful U.S. Congressmen, a popular PA Representative, and King Midas (i.e. Tom Knox), running on a platform of reform. Early in his administration, a line of people stretched around City Hall, waiting for hours in the cold to shake the new mayor’s hand.

Things sure have changed, and the press seems to blame the mayor’s loss of public support on his policy decisions. However, I do not think that the problems in the Nutter administration have to do with policy. I think this is nothing more than a PR problem.

Months ago, I attended an informal luncheon meeting of civically engaged folks, many in the arts, for a roundtable discussion with one of Mayor Nutter’s key advisors -- now a senior City official. I won’t name names, but a pretty big player in the arts world raised her hand and asked, “In the campaign, the Mayor said he would give more money to the arts. When is he going to do it?”

The City official responded: “He already added $2 million to the Cultural Fund, didn’t you hear?”

The questioner had not heard.

The fact is, the Mayor has done an astounding amount in his first year in City Hall. To name just a few accomplishments, the Mayor has:

  • Reduced the city’s murder rate by 15%
  • Launched Philadelphia’s first 311 system, creating a one-stop customer service line for the City
  • Created an Office of Transportation, the City’s first Office of Sustainability, and re-started the City Office of Arts and Culture
  • Attracted accomplished, national figures to Philadelphia, including Managing Director Camille Barnett and Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Andrew Altman
  • Reformed corrupted boards and commissions like the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and empowered weakened bodies like the City Planning Commission
  • Hired the City’s first Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, then defended that position before City Council, to save it from budget cuts
  • Found a solution for moving one of the two planned casinos from its much criticized riverfront location
  • Showed a serious focus on arts and culture, creating the Mayor’s Cultural Advisory Council
  • Hired department heads who are willing to take risks and realize progressive policies, such as Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler’s parking rate policies, and Planning Director Alan Greenberger’s plans for instituting civic design review
  • Showed a focus on planning and design issues by inviting the national Mayors’ Institute on City Design to Philadelphia (they'll be here from Feb. 12th-14th)

While doing all of this, Mayor Nutter has had to work within the constraints of a City whose borrowing power was exhausted by the last administration, balancing the City’s budget in the worst economic conditions in quite some time.

However, I do not want to sound like an apologist. Certainly, for Mayor Nutter to have achieved all of those accomplishments, realizing so much of what he laid out in his campaign, and now be facing such strong public opposition, it is clear that the Mayor has made some serious mistakes.

The biggest mistake was failing to ensure that the public heard about the administration’s accomplishments. There is no time for modesty; it is the Mayor’s job to shout his achievements from the rooftops. That is how to gain public support down the line when the Mayor has to make tough decisions.

Convene some focus groups. If members of the public have not heard about some big announcement, then your PR team needs a new strategy. There are plenty of PR avenues out there that this administration has not explored. The Governor has a wonderful little email newsletter touting the achievements of the week. I cannot find a parallel for the Mayor’s Office. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

The second big mistake has to do with public perception of the Mayor’s actions. All throughout the campaign, the public pleaded with the candidates to move the casinos. However, Mayor Nutter thought he would gain good will when he actually did it. There is nothing that the Mayor could do with casinos, short of trying to get rid of them, that would gain widespread, public good will. The Mayor should have let the casino operator take the spotlight on the proposed move to the Gallery at Market East, while the City took a more objective role.

Another example of this point is the Mayor’s position with libraries. Closing community libraries as a budget cutting effort was the entirely wrong approach. There is one thing that no public official should ever even consider cutting and hope to keep his or her job – libraries. There was a much better alternative.

Research shows that libraries are no longer primarily used as repositories of books, but rather as community resource centers, with internet access. The Mayor should have announced a progressive redesign of branch libraries into high-tech community resource centers, cutting down on books, while making them more in-tune with the public’s demands. The Mayor actually (eventually) changed his rhetoric to something closer to this concept, but far too late. The damage had been done.

These are just two examples of what has become a trend: Framing tough choices in a politically damaging way, while failing to properly tout the great things the administration is doing, the strides the administration has made, and the effective governing that is (finally) taking place in Philadelphia.

The Mayor has an outstanding policy team. His administration has installed top-notch people, and they have been implementing the progressive policies that Michael Nutter touted during the campaign. The Mayor is changing our city for the better, but nobody is seeing it. At the same time, he is tackling sensitive issues in the worst possible way, when there were far better, more politically palatable alternatives.

In his campaign, part of Michael Nutter’s success was in hiring some of the best political advisors out there. His campaign team forged a public image of Nutter that was forward-looking and committed to fighting corruption. It was an image that was both very smart, and incredibly human. Nutter the candidate was at every public forum, saying the right thing, with his face on TV, giving viewers a comfortable and inspiring image.

What happened? The people he hired to draft policy are the right ones. Good policies are getting made, and they are setting our city in the right direction. However, the Mayor’s image has been tainted. Mayor Nutter should look seriously at his PR team, glance back at what worked so well in the campaign, and then, as quickly as possible, work at remaking himself as the Michael Nutter that the general public once knew and loved.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Now on Exhibition

The winning entries from REBUILD | REVIVE, the 3rd Annual Ed Bacon Student Design Competition are on display at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture (1218 Arch St.), from January 13th through February 14th. The competition challenged students across the U.S. to design concepts for the future of the Ludlow neighborhood of North Philadelphia. You can view the winners online here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Who Lives Around Transit?


America is seeing an emerging interest in transit-oriented development (TOD). There are many advantages to living near rail transit, and within the greater Philadelphia region, there are more than 90 TOD projects recently completed or in the pipeline. However, nobody has truly analyzed who currently lives around rail transit, and whether those people take advantage of this asset.

Until now.

A new report from DVRPC (that I authored) crunches the numbers for 375 transit zones in the region. A transit zone is an area within a half-mile-radius of a rail transit stop. While other reports have looked at transit usage and demographics by neighborhood or municipality, this report analyzes data for people living within the transit zones.

This type of analysis shows the differences between people who live near transit, and the region as a whole. For example, 71% of people in the region identify as White, while 47% of those in transit zones identify as White. For the region as a whole, 73.7% percent of commuters drive, whereas in transit zones the percentage of people commuting by car is 66%.

For those of us promoting TOD, or for developers looking to build TOD, this report sheds some light on how people around transit currently live. For example, 66.7% of people who live in transit zones own zero or one car per household. Nearly 40% of residents in transit zones have average household incomes of over $50,000 per year. The median age of residents in transit zones is 36.4.

The report also shows all of the data sets per transit zone, by rail stop. From this type of base-level data we can learn, for example, that only 7.4% of people who live within a half mile of the Ambler SEPTA train station (an area with new TOD projects) currently commute using mass transit (yet untapped opportunity?).

Anyway, enough number crunching for now. If you are interested, check out the full report here. I will warn you, it is not the most graphically interesting report. Not to mention, it is far from the final word on the state of TOD in the region. However, I think it is an important step forward. I'd love to hear what my readers think.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Next Big Thing?

I graduate from the University of Pennsylvania this year with my Masters in City and Regional Planning, and I have been networking furiously for the past few months, searching for employment in a pathetic job market. Most people encourage me to wait. They say, “wait for the Stimulus Package,” assuring me that this anticipated federal funding will create lots of work for people interested in the fields of land use, transportation, development, and policy.

Many have unrealistic expectations for the Stimulus Package. It does represent a critical opportunity for the nation to rebuild its infrastructure, but as many have noted, it also appears to be geared toward bridge and highway spending, and not the multi modal approach advocated by the planeratti.

There are quite a few reasons for this highway bias in the spending package. Our nation’s highway infrastructure is underperforming almost as badly as our transit infrastructure. Our states legislatures are controlled by rural counties who rely more on highways. And of course, as Americans, we are naturally biased towards the car. But perhaps the most important (and worst) reason these funds are being spent on highways and bridges is the propensity to latch on to the simplest iteration of an idea or concept, and assume that by promoting that “next best thing” we can solve all our problems.

A digressive case in point: Transit Oriented Development. Private developers and community developers across the country are building near rail lines and calling their projects Transit Oriented Developments. The projects are often funded with public dollars because the proposals convince government that they will cure urban sprawl and do all sorts of miraculous things. Forget for a moment that many of these projects have tons of parking and do little to actually promote transit. Real TOD has less to do with any individual project, but rather should be understood as the systematic approach a municipality takes in rewriting its zoning code to promote denser development around train stations, and spending streetscaping dollars around those stations to build a sense of place. TOD is by no means a quick fix; it is nothing short than a philosophical change in how we build and live. However, projects often drape themselves in its mantle in hopes that its critically acclaimed status rubs off on them.

These projects lined up for Stimulus Package funding are often projects that have been lying on desk, or in drawers, for a few years: plans drawn up simply awaiting a jackpot funding stream. Because our infrastructure is already so far behind where it needs to be (the entire nation’s infrastructure was given an overall grade of “D” in 2005 by the American Society for Civil Engineers) there is a backlog of projects that could use the money. There is an unstated assumption that by simply pouring money into building and repairing roads and bridges, that jobs will be created and our national infrastructure will be saved (not to mention the recession will be over).

There are several problems with this line of thinking; no one is asking what kind of jobs these projects will actually create, or how sustainable these jobs will be. We are creating jobs for several thousands of planners, engineers, and constructions workers, but how long will these jobs last, and what else could we invest in that would create more jobs? If the goal is to create jobs and jumpstart an economy, do we want to get ahead of the curve and invest in emerging sectors like bio-tech, or perhaps invest in public education.

However if we want to invest in transit we need to think about the future. We should not play catch up with old projects; instead we need to prioritize projects that will have the greatest impact in strengthening the economies of large metropolitan areas. These projects include high speed inter-city trains, additional freight capacity, intra-city transit system improvement, and yes even TOD projects. However, in order for this to happen several changes need to happen in how we distribute federal dollars. The reason pork-barrel projects exist is that we have no over-arching transportation spending plan. The very nature of DOT funding encourages a cycle of constituents pressuring congressmen for earmarks if they want anything done in their district. The National Association of City Transportation Officials provides a thorough review of the structural changes that are necessary to reform transportation funding for all modes [pdf]

Ultimately, I am worried that the funding promised in this much-anticipated Stimulus Package will be wasted. Without a defined set of criteria that would guide investment, with out appropriate procedures to make sure that the money is spent wisely, and with only a nebulous goal (jumpstart the economy) few of these investments will have long-term benefits.

More G-Ho!


On December 19th, I noted an article in the Inquirer touting the G-Ho neighborhood (i.e., Graduate Hospital, Southwest Center City, South of South, etc.), as "the place to buy." Today on page 5 of the Metro (it doesnt' seem to be online) is another article about G-Ho, "Old Becomes New." The article states, "Over the past year, Southwest Center City has been a beacon of steady home sales amid a city hit by the mortgage meltdown..."

G-Ho is a pretty cool neighborhood, but what gives? Why all the press now? Did SOSNA just hire a PR person? This is a neighborhood that has been on the rise for over a decade. Its revitalization has been well documented over the years. See PhillySkyline's G-Ho site, for example.

I want to take this opportunity to repeat my suggestion from December 19th (and I'll continue to repeat it after each additional instance of a Philly newspaper featuring G-Ho). Some major publication should profile a different neighborhood each month. This way, the incredible neighborhoods across the city can all have a chance to get some ink, and the newcomers to Philly can learn about the diversity of neighborhoods that make up this 135 square-mile city.