University of Pennsylvania professor and former Daily News Columnist Mark Allan Hughes once wrote critically of “a world that demands simple solutions for complex problems…” The need for understanding and addressing the subtle and complex realm of urban development and public policy is the unspoken premise of John Kromer’s new book, Fixing Broken Cities: The Implementation of Urban Development Strategies. Kromer, a veteran civil servant, professor, and policy consultant, presents extraordinarily complex problems through the lens of someone who has been there, fought the battles, and can now reflect on what works and what doesn’t. The book delves deep into policy issues, but is very readable and generally jargon-free. For anyone who is involved in urban development or ever wants to be, Fixing Broken Cities, is a must read.
Kromer, who now roosts at the Fels Institute of Government at Penn, spent a career deep in the trenches of urban housing and community development. But he is quick to point out, “I do not have a degree in city planning, economics, or public administration; I have no political credentials to speak of…” Kromer’s qualifications come from raw experience. He worked his way up through the bureaucracy of Philadelphia’s housing agencies to become the City’s housing director and briefly the head of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Later he temporarily headed Camden, New Jersey’s redevelopment effort, and more recently served as a consultant to Allentown, Pennsylvania. The book provides a detailed tour through Kromer’s career, focusing on each city and transferring ideas from one case study to the next, while providing exposure to the challenges and political battles that arose along the way.
Kromer explains that he has “devoted most of my career to implementing downtown and neighborhood reinvestment strategies in cities that are disinvested, de-populated, and cash-starved.” He writes about his episodes experiencing tough political realities, infuriating bureaucratic logjams, and staggering problems that needed to be solved with next to no resources. Such a career would have driven many out of public service. However, Kromer not only slogged through, he seems to have drawn strength from the utter complexity of massive urban dilemmas, feeding an endless optimism and faith that the future can be better.
In some ways Fixing Broken Cities is a sequel to Kromer’s earlier book, Neighborhood Recovery: Reinvestment Policy for the New Hometown. The two books deal with similar problems and ideas, but now Kromer has more experience under his belt, and the concepts in Fixing Broken Cities are often more defined, evidence-based, and pragmatic. The new book’s title captures Kromer’s optimism, expressing the idea that some cities are broken, but they can be fixed, and as the title implies, the book will show us how it can be done.
Much of the book focuses on the city where Kromer spent the lion’s share of his career – Philadelphia. Since the low point of Philadelphia’s urban decline in the 1980s, the city has seen a stream of programs and initiatives focused on downtown and community reinvestment. Kromer provides a survey of these programs, connecting them and providing first-hand perspective on their intended results, strengths, weaknesses, and impacts. The reader comes away seeing that Philadelphia’s recent resurgence is surely not accidental.
The programs and initiatives span from city and state tax credits and abatements, to the advent of Center City District, investments by the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia, and the City’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. Kromer never argues that these interventions were based on a single plan, ran smoothly, or were truly connected. However, he shows how collectively they built upon each other in a powerful and incremental way.
In the book, Kromer proceeds point by point to show how these programs played out. For example, he discusses the success of Philadelphia’s tax abatement program in attracting new development downtown and in promoting the rehabilitation of blighted and abandoned buildings. He uses this program to highlight challenges, namely that in a strong economy the abatement becomes a tax break for the rich. His solution: “Use post-abatement term tax revenue to support affordable housing.” Overall, he dubs this program, which continues to be controversial in Philadelphia, “a success in economic development terms and a failure in terms of human capital development.”
Kromer also goes into great detail about the implementation of Philadelphia’s massive Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) under Mayor John Street, which Kromer argues was flawed from beginning because “program decisions were being made in the absence of planning.” He explains, “If Mayor Street had identified community planning as the first step in redefining the working relationship between municipal government and neighborhoods, then every municipal agency would have been involved in the citywide dialogue.” Instead, Kromer swipes at the program, noting how it devolved into a “politically motivated” strategy that did little more than “improve the City’s ability to assemble land for development.”
The discussion of NTI is not entirely critical, but Kromer also notes, “Most of the development that occurred in Philadelphia during Street’s eight-year tenure was not NTI-financed.” The big point he leaves readers with is that “a transformation of neighborhoods could not be undertaken successfully unless preceded by a transformation of government.” One of the book’s great strengths is that Kromer never cites mistakes without proposing solutions. He always lays out a list of ideas, in this case including having the Mayor appoint a development policy chief, and giving the City’s Redevelopment Authority right of first refusal on foreclosure-eligible properties before they go to Sherriff sale or auction.
In his chapter about the revitalization of West Philadelphia, Kromer heaps praise on the series of interventions taken by the University of Pennsylvania, under its past President Judith Rodin, to invest in the communities surrounding the university. Kromer argues that this type of investment by place-based institutions is critical in today’s economy. He writes, “Many of these institutions cannot move to new sites; they have to succeed in place.” Penn developed a powerful approach, but encountered many naysayers about what could succeed in the marketplace. Kromer notes that Penn’s strategy also required a strong understanding of urban development, and “there was no opportunity for a suburban developer to play any constructive role.”
After discussing Philadelphia for over 200 pages, Kromer dedicates half as much ink to discussions of Camden and Allentown. This disproportionate focus on Philadelphia reflects the duration of the author’s own experiences. Yet the inclusion of other cities is valuable – broadening the book’s perspective. For example, during his stint directing Camden’s redevelopment program, Kromer had to deal with a small city under a state takeover, with different levels of government at odds as to who was in charge. It was a wholly different situation from the one he experienced in Philadelphia.
The account of the messy attempts in Camden to gain approval for redevelopment plans and attract developers is detailed and comprehensive. However, by the end of the Camden discussion, Kromer steps back to note a larger issue, sounding a less-than-subtle call to action: “The real barrier to Camden’s future success was the absence of a new generation of civic leadership... The places with the greatest potential to contribute to the growth of civic leadership in Camden are the city’s academic and health care institutions...”
In Allentown, the issues diverge even farther from those in Philadelphia. The Allentown City government brought on Kromer to advise on policies to address “the destabilization of neighborhood blocks, as a result of large-scale conversions of single-family homes to multi-family properties.” Kromer runs through an array of policy interventions to deal with the problems of a place that has seen significant real estate interest in purchasing investment properties – shifting a city of homes to one overrun with rental units, and the issues that arise from absentee landlords.
One of the intriguing elements of Fixing Broken Cities is that Kromer is clearly a participant in the narrative, not just an observer. For example, after the completion of new housing in North Philadelphia, Kromer received criticism for allowing “suburban-style” development, without a mix of uses or supportive services. Some of this criticism came from Mayor John Street’s wife in the middle of a meeting. Kromer writes, “So how do you respond to criticism from the Mayor’s wife? … Who did she think I was, Robert Moses, Jr.?” These types of entertaining episodes remind the reader that this is not a textbook or a sterile academic treatise. Rather it is a no-holds-barred, personal story and an honest assessment from someone who was there, and who still is.
In perhaps the most personal chapter, Kromer steps back from high-level policy and focuses on his own West Philadelphia community, and the controversial plans to redevelop an abandoned fire house into a farmers market. Even here, so close to home, he does not shy away from tough issues, delving into the dangerous waters of race and community politics. He asserts, “The best plan for the fire house would be one that appealed to both whites and blacks and brought residents from both sides of the 50th Street divide together in an unforced, spontaneous way.” Using maps and data he convincingly shows how local perceptions of gentrification that created roadblocks for the project were not, in fact, the reality.
Kromer writes, “The controversy over the fire house was not a symptom of gentrification; it was a disagreement among a relatively small number of middle-class residents, most of whom had not grown up in the community… based on their perceptions – well-founded or unfounded – of what community should be.” He closes the chapter noting that the farmers market failed, but that the property’s current incarnation as a brewpub created “a valuable economic asset,” whose clientele is “primary white and under thirty.”
In a final chapter titled “The Future of Reinvestment,” Kromer argues that today’s landscape demands fresh thinking; the era of big government-supported urban renewal is over. Kromer writes, “the rules have changed; the money is spent; the show is ending.” In this chapter, he outlines “ten ways in which many city governments are unprepared to address the challenges and opportunities associated with twenty-first century reinvestment.” This section includes arguments like “Postindustrial cities and the states where they are located need a qualified twenty-first-century workforce more than anything else.”
He takes a biting swing at Habitat for Humanity arguing, “The last thing that highly distressed urban communities need is more low-income housing – and that is exactly what Habitat is producing in many urban areas.” He also criticizes the common strategy of cities requiring a certain percentage of business to go to certified minority-owned companies, arguing, “The reason why this approach fails is because the government mandate is not linked to a business services progress that is designed specifically to help small minority and neighborhood contractors develop the capability to bid competitively on city contracting and vending opportunities.”
However, he does not end on a pessimistic note. Kromer closes the chapter summarizing some of the major policy solutions that emerged from the book’s various chapters, connecting them to who should implement them (federal, state or local government, or institutions like universities and hospitals). For example, he encourages states to focus on both housing development and job training to a higher degree, and institutions to create incentives for employees to buy houses nearby their campuses and “to support one or more public schools.”
The book’s closing message is that cities require a focus on sustainability, but not in the environmental sense. Kromer explains, “Urban assets are unlike wetlands or wildlife areas; in order to preserve their intrinsic value they need to change; preservation and adaptation need to be linked.” This message is a powerful challenge. Do we understand our urban places well enough to value their preservation? Are we savvy and innovative enough to know how to adapt?
Fixing Broken Cities is fascinating and enlightening – surely one of the most important accounts of urban reinvestment policy that has come out in recent times. Kromer has a deep institutional memory and is a keen policy analyst. In the end, the book’s main lesson is that simple solutions will not cut it. Kromer argues “business leaders tend to like policies that are straightforward, clearly articulated, and easy to grasp.” Throughout the book, Kromer is clear that government, the private sector, and institutions need to think more long-term and comprehensively. Forget about the short-term, the easy-to-understand, the sexy initiative that can be communicated in a sound bite. They lack the power to be game changers.