A city of jobs Meccas, and deserts

by pkerkstra on September 9, 2012

This column first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 8, 2012.

Center City is the spoiled golden child of Philadelphia: always getting the accolades, the extra allowance, and all that special attention from Mom (City Hall) and Dad (the media).

Understandably enough, this can make the other neighborhoods a bit jealous. Where’s our Sister Cities Park? asks Fairhill. Why does murder seem to matter more when it happens in Center City? wonders Kingsessing.

Those are fair questions. But the disparity in treatment between the city’s neighborhoods and its core isn’t going away any time soon, and for good reasons.

Center City is the most essential neighborhood in Philadelphia, and its success over the last 15 or 20 years is arguably the biggest reason the city as a whole hasn’t followed Detroit into the urban afterlife.

This case is convincingly made in a new report on private-sector employment released Thursday by the Center City District.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that Philadelphia has far too few jobs, and that it continues to shed those it has at an alarming clip. More on that in a bit.

More interesting is the report’s finding that fully 38 percent of all private-sector jobs in Philadelphia are located in Center City’s 2.8 square miles. An additional 11 percent are directly adjacent to Center City, in the Penn-and-Drexel-fueled University City area. Some jobs are found at Temple University and at the Navy Yard, but otherwise the city is something of a jobless wasteland, with little work beyond neighborhood retail and some small-scale manufacturing.

Here’s another gobsmacking figure the Center City District calculated: There are 129 jobs per acre in Center City, and an average of just 4 per acre in the rest of Philadelphia.

In other words, Center City is far more than a collection of restaurants and expensive condos. It’s an economic engine that powers literally every neighborhood in Philadelphia.

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Trees, magical trees

by pkerkstra on August 31, 2012

This column first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 31, 2012.

I fell in love with my West Philadelphia neighborhood in a single afternoon. On a whim, I took a walk from the heart of Center City out to 50th and Baltimore, and spent hours weaving in and out of the largely residential blocks along the way.

I couldn’t get over how green everything was.

It was still undeniably the city – with the trolley and the African grocery stores, the sirens and the rowhouses – but the trees lining the residential streets lent the neighborhood a serene quality utterly missing from many other sections of the city.

Less than a month later, my wife and I had bought a West Philly home on a block shaded by a series of majestic, 80-year-old London plane trees, with canopies so wide they covered the entire width of the street.

The appeal of trees in city settings is so simple and obvious that it would hardly seem to warrant mentioning. And yet, for many years, Philadelphia and other cities managed to overlook the psychic, environmental, and economic benefits that a healthy urban forest could provide.

Trees planted in past generations aged and died and were not replaced. So, bit by bit, the city has grown less verdant. The sidewalks have become a bit hotter. And more storm water has flowed uncaptured to the sewers, carrying pollutants that the city’s overtaxed water-treatment plants must filter out.

That indifference to the near-magical abilities of urban trees is fading away fast, both in city government and among Philadelphia residents.

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This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Aug. 17, 2012.

A week ago I wrote that the state’s voter identification law had proven in Commonwealth Court to be morally indefensible.

Well, morality doesn’t seem to have much to do with the law, at least so far as Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. was concerned. “I do not have the luxury of deciding this issue based on my sympathy for the witnesses or my esteem for counsel,” he wrote in an opinion released Wednesday that upheld the voter ID requirement. “Rather, I must analyze the law, and apply it.”

But what’s been missing from the entire voter ID debate isn’t sympathy, it’s empathy. And it appears that Simpson – like a majority of the public – can’t shake the mistaken assumption that most everyone who’s legit already has ID, and that it’s not a big deal for those people without to get one.

Photo ID to vote, Simpson wrote, “is a reasonable, nondiscriminatory, non-severe burden when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of photo ID in daily life.”

No doubt valid photo IDs are widely used in Simpson’s social and professional circles. But his daily life bears little resemblance to the existence of many low-income Philadelphians who – not owning cars or judicial robes, and lacking the funds to travel by plane – have far less need for current state-issued photo ID than do the likes of Simpson.

And his finding that the law is “nondiscriminatory” is baffling in light of the state’s own data, which show that there are far higher concentrations of voters without eligible ID in heavily minority voting districts, many of which are in Philadelphia.

Just as odd is Simpson’s unexplained faith in the ability of state officials to issue IDs en masse and educate the public about the law before the Nov. 6 presidential election. Was Simpson not listening when Carol Aichele – the state’s top voter ID official – said, under questioning from plaintiffs’ attorneys, “I don’t know what the law says”? [click to continue…]

Voter ID shown to be morally indefensible

by pkerkstra on August 12, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 11, 2012.

Before the case against Pennsylvania’s Voter ID law got its hearing in Commonwealth Court, ID advocates could pretend they were the good guys. This campaign isn’t about voter suppression, they could say with a straight face, this is about putting an end to voter fraud.

But over seven days in a Harrisburg courthouse, that plausible deniability was shredded.

Yes, it’s possible that Judge Robert Simpson will let the law stand next week, when his ruling is expected. The legislature has a well established authority to regulate elections, and Simpson may not want to meddle with that.

And yes, even if voter ID is struck down, there will be an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

But none of that should matter. Whatever the legal basis for the law, the proceedings in Simpson’s court proved conclusively that voter ID – in this form, on this timeline – is a morally indefensible train wreck that’s sure to disenfranchise legitimate voters in this November’s election.

The Pennsylvania House and Senate reconvene on Sept. 24. If the courts haven’t already done the job for them, repealing voter ID ought to be the first vote the legislature takes, and the repeal ought to pass overwhelmingly.

Back in March, when the law was adopted along mostly partisan lines, leading Republican supporters of the bill (such as Gov. Corbett) got away with both ridiculous predictions that voter ID would increase turnout and bogus claims that 99 percent of voters already had the necessary identification.

But that argument was aired before PennDot released a list of 759,000 voters who might not have PennDot IDs, and another list of 906,000 with expired IDs that wouldn’t be accepted at polling places this November.

And it was before the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center found PennDot to be woefully unprepared to handle a rush of voters looking to get valid IDs before the election.

And it was before Azavea, the civic-minded Philadelphia data firm, published a jaw-dropping map proving conclusively that the lack of state-issued IDs among registered voters is overwhelmingly concentrated in low-income minority neighborhoods.

And it was before the state’s attorneys agreed to stipulate in court that the commonwealth isn’t aware of “any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.”

And it was before The Inquirer’s Bob Warner demonstrated that the PennDot list of the allegedly ID-less was full of inaccuracies (meaning that nobody really has any idea just many legitimate voters lack the necessary documentation).

And it was before House Republican Leader Mike Turzai ‘fessed up to the law’s political purpose before a crowd of applauding GOP faithful, telling them that voter ID “is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

For political cynics like Turzai, no amount of evidence will likely be enough to change their minds on voter ID. Their object isn’t better public policy, but electoral victory.

But for those who were genuinely concerned about pervasive voter fraud, and for those who simply couldn’t imagine that valid voters might actually lack identification, it’s past time to reconsider their assumptions.

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More park, less way

by pkerkstra on August 4, 2012

This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 4, 2012.

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is rather like Philadelphia as a whole: There’s a lot to love about the place, but the sight of so much squandered potential can be hard to take.

From Eakins Oval, looking northwest at the monumental steps and edifice of the Art Museum, the scene is magnificent. But turn around 180 degrees, and you’re staring at a parking lot inexplicably situated on some of the most prime public real estate in the city.

The new Sister Cities Park, across 18th Street from the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, may just be the most captivating 1.75 acres in the city, capturing, as Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote, ” the refined whimsy of Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens” and packing it “into a space a quarter the size of Rittenhouse Square.”

Of course, to get to the park from the new $150 million Barnes Foundation museum, tourists first must walk past makeshift homeless encampments.

You see this sort of schizophrenia up and down the Parkway. You emerge from the fabulously renovated Rodin Museum into a wooded glade, and then must play a tense game of real-life Frogger, darting through eight lanes of heavy traffic just to cross the Parkway.

And yet, despite its fickle qualities, the Parkway is probably Philadelphia’s “most beautiful and iconic civic space,” as deputy mayor and city parks chief Michael DiBerardinis likes to put it.

That would have been a hard argument to make a decade ago. But the recent improvements to the Parkway – from massive new facilities like the Barnes to modest touch-ups like wide and well-painted bike lanes – have made the grand boulevard vastly more inviting.

“The Parkway has changed from a place you want to drive through to a place you want to linger,” said Harris Steinberg, executive director of Penn Praxis, the wing of Penn’s School of Design that works on real-world urban planning projects (full disclosure: I also write for PlanPhilly, a Penn Praxis-affiliated news outlet).

Still, the Parkway isn’t close to reaching its full potential yet. And so Penn Praxis and the City of Philadelphia held a series of community meetings over the last few weeks, soliciting ideas on how to make the Parkway more inviting (Penn’s Project for Civic Engagement moderated the sessions). In a few months, Penn Praxis will write up its recommendations for the next phase of Parkway improvements.

The recurring theme is: more Park, less Way.

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Soda tax bubbles up again

by pkerkstra on July 28, 2012

Persistence is a too-rare quality in political leaders. Even more than the rest of us, politicians hate to lose. Once burned, elected officials more often than not stop risking political capital on the losing cause.

So it’s more refreshing than an ice-cold soda to see that Mayor Nutter, though beaten in 2010 and again in 2011, still has not given up his goal of passing a tax on sugary drinks.

“It was a good idea when we proposed it; it’s still a good idea today,” Nutter told the Philadelphia Daily News this week.

I’d figured the tax for a slam dunk when it was introduced a little over two years ago. City Council isn’t exactly allergic to taxes, and here was one that seemed likely to offend fewer people than would another round of property tax hikes.

Instead, the soda industry put together a remarkably potent political coalition and squashed the initiative two years running.

The campaign, run by veteran public-relations manager Larry Ceisler, is well-funded. Why, the beverage industry spent $239,000 in the first quarter of this year alone, and Nutter didn’t push a sugary drinks tax this year.

But even more important than the money is the makeup of the antitax lobby; big-money business interests, of course, but also union workers, leading philanthropists who just happen to be soda moguls, and sympathetic mom-and-pop corner-store owners.

That’s a group that hits a lot of different political pressure points, and there are no signs the coalition is fraying or going away. Which is why it’s a bit surprising that Nutter seems eager to go another round. But Ceisler says he expected it all along.

“You can’t go around being a national spokesperson on an issue and not try it in your own city,” Ceisler said, referring to Nutter’s myriad appearances on cable networks and radio programs to talk about obesity.

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Center City to midtown in just over a half hour

by pkerkstra on July 21, 2012

This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 21, 2012.

Amtrak is thinking big in small-minded times.

At all levels, government is scaling back. One of our political parties has decided that investment in infrastructure is a dangerous, socialistic experiment, and the other one can’t manage to persuade the country otherwise.

So this may not the best moment to pitch a $151 billion bonanza, which is the amount Amtrak would like to spend over the next 28 years bringing high-speed rail to the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor.

But Amtrak is thinking long-term. The government-owned railroad company is betting (or wishing, at any rate) that the political zeitgeist will change, that America someday will rediscover its long-lost love for great public works projects.

Philadelphians should hope Amtrak is right.

On a national level, high-speed rail is no slam-dunk investment. There’s a lot of research out there that suggests that high-speed rail costs more than it generates in increased economic activity. And in some car-dependent areas, such as California, Texas, and Florida, there are legitimate worries that people are too accustomed to driving as a way of life to switch en masse to trains.

But the Northeast is a train-loving region, with a long rail-riding tradition. If Amtrak builds it here, people will come.

And while the return on investment may indeed be bad in other sections of the country, high-speed rail would work economic wonders in Philadelphia. In fact, perhaps no city in the nation would benefit more from a fast, modern, intercity rail network.

Why? Two reasons. Geography and Philadelphia’s comparatively cheap and plentiful housing stock.

Amtrak predicts that a ride from Philadelphia to New York would take just 37 minutes after its proposed system is completed, down from the 70 minutes that the fastest Acela Express trip takes today. Washington would be just 54 minutes away, reduced from the 93-minute minimum of 2012.

What does that mean? If Amtrak has its way, New York and Washington would be within easy commuting distance of Philadelphia.

Consider that residents of the metro New York area already spend an average of 35 minutes getting to their jobs each morning (51 minutes for those on public transit).

With 37-minute Amtrak service, Philadelphia-to-New York becomes a realistic daily commute. Instead of shelling out $1 million-plus for a north Brooklyn fixer-upper, well-off New Yorkers could relocate to Philadelphia, buy a massive University City Victorian or a Rittenhouse condo for half the price, and commute to a Midtown office in about an hour, door to door.

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City Hall’s reboot

by pkerkstra on July 17, 2012

This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 14, 2012.

Dysfunction in Philadelphia’s City Hall comes in many flavors.

There are the outdated union contracts and their burdensome work rules, the still-strong influence of the Democratic machine, and the pay-to-play culture, which is diminished but not dead.

But arguably more debilitating than any of the above is the pathetic state of the information systems. Technologically, Philadelphia’s government is a decade or more behind the rest of the world, and it shows.

Spend enough time in City Hall and you’ll hear countless stories of mind-blowing inefficiency. Documents are typed up in one system only to be printed out, walked across the office, and reentered (by hand) into a different system on another machine.

Obviously this wastes time and money, and it leads to innumerable errors and omissions in the records.

Over the years, the city has taken occasional stabs at solving one glaring tech problem or the other with spot upgrades. But its record even on these relatively modest improvements is terrible.

After spending $17 million on police surveillance cameras, we learned last month that only about 70 percent are operational. In May, the city scrapped a $227,000 project to create a digitized, searchable database of lobbyist disclosure statements when it became clear the firm that had been hired for the job wasn’t up to the task.

Before that it was a debacle of a water billing system, an expensive and ultimately abandoned property appraisal system, and, of course, the high-profile failure of Wireless Philadelphia.

Now the Nutter administration is taking another crack at this long-running problem, with what looks to be an altogether different approach.

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The best mayor Portland never had

by pkerkstra on June 24, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 23, 2012.

These are schizophrenic times for Mayor Nutter.

One day, he’s in Philadelphia, unable to stop City Council from taking a flamethrower to his signature 2012 plan, the property-tax reform known as Actual Value Initiative. The next, he’s in Orlando, basking in the applause of peers from across the country who elevated him to the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Pilloried in Philly, then feted in Florida, all within 48 hours. The split between Nutter’s dual realities – one on the local stage, and the other played out nationally – is growing wider by the day.

Nationally, between his new post and his steady stream of television appearances as an Obama surrogate and spokesman for urban America, Nutter is becoming a Democratic star, a slightly lower-voltage version of his “frenemy,” Newark, N.J.’s Cory Booker.

Increasingly, the rest of the country seems to think Philadelphia doesn’t realize just how lucky it is to have Michael Nutter as mayor. Philadelphians are, after all, a famously ungrateful lot. So it’s not hard to understand why outsiders dismiss the hometown booing as the political equivalent of Phillies fans heckling Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.

Outside Philadelphia, Nutter is rightly seen as one of the most environmentally progressive mayors in the country. He’s viewed as a champion of good urban planning and innovative public spaces. And he’s considered part of the leading edge of the antiobesity crusade.

These are all good causes to be associated with. Yet they are also the sort of priorities you’d expect of the mayor of Portland, Ore., a far less troubled city with more small-batch breweries than homicide victims. And what ails Portland is not remotely comparable to the daily travails of Philadelphia. [click to continue…]

Philadelphia’s great reckoning

by pkerkstra on June 17, 2012

This column appeared in the Inquirer on June 15, 2012.

Like a boiler with a rust-eaten lining worn eggshell thin, huge sectors of Philadelphia’s infrastructure have been neglected to the point where an explosion now looks inevitable. And a lot of people are about to get badly burned.

I’m not talking about the physical infrastructure, though that’s not faring any better. I’m referring to core civic systems like public education, tax structure, benefits for city workers, even the land itself.

As a city, we’ve known for decades that these municipal building blocks were breaking down. But it was easier and more expedient either to ignore the warning signs or, when that wasn’t possible, to make just enough repairs to get by.

That’s not going to work anymore. Philadelphia’s great reckoning is upon us. Look around.

The Actual Value Initiative is all about making right the wrongs of the past. In this case, the wrongs are property assessments so inaccurate that they appear to be the work of a monkey fishing balls out of a lottery hopper.

Fixing that mess was never expected to be easy, but only recently have we started to see how much chaos AVI will sow. At the tax rates now being discussed in City Hall, there are homeowners in this city that will see their bills increase by 1,000 percent or more in a single year. Bills that double or triple will be commonplace. And much of this insanity will be concentrated in the neighborhoods that have done the most in recent years to attract new residents to the city: Point Breeze and Graduate Hospital, University City, Northern Liberties, Fishtown and Fairmount.

AVI is a cure that will create new diseases in healthy communities: people on the margins will fall into delinquency, the real estate market will slow, and some with the means to move will decide that, if they are paying Lower Merion-size property taxes, they’d be better off in Lower Merion.

Yet, what’s the alternative? Continue with the bad old numbers? Assessments that stiff the poor and the unlucky, that violate both the law and basic standards of fairness and equity?

Delaying a year might help the city find ways to blunt the worst of the impact, but only so much pain can be prevented. And all of it is due to the paralysis of a city government that knew full well about the problem, ignored it for as long as possible, and thus compounded the trauma of the inevitable reckoning.

Everyone has a hand in this fiasco: mayors and city councils, but also the judges and party bosses – hello there, Bob Brady – who picked the well-compensated directors that ran the inept Board of Revision of Taxes. [click to continue…]

The shocking resilience of AVI

by pkerkstra on June 9, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 8, 2012.

In defiance of all political logic, the city’s long-awaited and much-feared Actual Value Initiative appears destined to clear City Council this month.

In the long run, this is unquestionably good news. A fair and equitable tax system is the foundation of good government, and new, accurate property assessments are the only way to get there.

Even so, I’m stunned that Council is willing to approve an unpopular and hastily assembled reform that is all but certain to create mass confusion and populist outrage, and could even cost a few members their jobs.

That’s no exaggeration. Just look to Pittsburgh, where mangled property assessments and a long-running court-ordered campaign to fix them have arguably been the dominant political issue for more than a decade. Indeed, reassessments are seen as so politically toxic in Allegheny County that Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald – the county’s most senior elected official – vowed during his campaign that he would go to jail before mailing out new assessments, court order be damned.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Actual Value Initiative is almost the law of the land, without the political cover of a court order, and in spite of an array of unanswered questions about who will win in the citywide property reassessment, and who will lose.

“How is this thing alive? It’s a total mystery to me,” said State Sen. Michael Stack, one of many members of the city’s Harrisburg delegation who wants to kill AVI (for now, at least). [click to continue…]

In Praise of the Parking Authority. Seriously.

by pkerkstra on June 2, 2012

The column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 1, 2012.

Is there an easier punching bag in all of Philadelphia than the Parking Authority?

This is the agency that unites the city better than a championship parade on Broad Street, but in mass loathing, not love. Whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, Rittenhouse- or Roxborough-born, nothing is more galling than finding ugly blue-and-white Parking Authority love letters on your windshield.

“It is very easy to hate the Parking Authority, and everybody does it,” acknowledges Rina Cutler, the city’s deputy mayor for transportation. “It’s very much like the IRS that way.”

As former boss of the authority, Cutler should know. But she has also overseen parking enforcement agencies in Boston and San Francisco, where she found that public hatred of uniformed ticket writers ran just as deep as in Philadelphia. “It’s just the nature of the business,” she said.

Which makes sense. Deserved or not, getting a violation notice almost always infuriates. And anytime you have a government agency issuing 1.7 million tickets a year, there will inevitably be egregious screwups for the media to highlight (though, let’s be real, the vast majority of those violation notices are valid).

But if anecdotal outrages and mass disdain are poor yardsticks for judging an agency, what should be looked at? Two things: money and effective management of parking supply and demand.

And by those measures, the Philadelphia Parking Authority is doing far better today than it was just a few years ago. [click to continue…]

Speaking softly without a stick

by pkerkstra on May 28, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 25, 2012.

Relax, Philadelphia! Gov. Corbett’s got this.

Sure, those dire headlines and the protests in the street might lead you to think city schools are careering down a seemingly endless fiscal mine shaft. But thanks to an update this week on Corbett’s Twitter feed, we now know otherwise: “the number one priority in the #pabudget is education.”

The most remarkable thing about this statement is that, technically, it’s true. Corbett’s otherwise parsimonious budget does include a minuscule increase in K-12 funding (higher ed, not so much). Even Philadelphia schools get more state money in Corbett’s budget than they did last year: 2.47 percent more.

Still, it’s the worst sort of sophistry to contend that the state is prioritizing education. Hardly a dime of the added money set aside for Philadelphia will reach the classroom, as almost all of the cash is allocated for nonnegotiable pension payments. And, of course, the trickle of money doesn’t make up for the nearly 10 percent slashing Corbett imposed on city schools last year as part of an involuntary post-stimulus budget cleansing.

Even so, in Philadelphia at least, Corbett and the statehouse are largely getting a pass on their role in this fiasco. The School Reform Commission members aren’t (publicly) lobbying for more state money: Rather, they’re warning about the greater catastrophe to come if City Council doesn’t do as Mayor Nutter has asked and make Philadelphia property owners pay $94 million more to save the schools.

“What the hell is up with that?” as Councilman Dennis O’Brien eloquently put it at a recent hearing.

A better question might be: What other realistic options are there? Sure, Nutter and the SRC could howl at Harrisburg. They could cast Corbett as the villain and try to embarrass the state lawmakers holding the purse strings.

And maybe that would make Philadelphians feel better. But it wouldn’t get the schools any more money. The sad fact is the city’s influence in Harrisburg is at its lowest ebb in a long, long while.

Ed Rendell is hawking a book. Dwight Evans lost his powerful position atop the Appropriations Committee and is in the minority. Vincent Fumo is 32 months into his 61-month federal prison sentence, and John Perzel is just beginning his. The city has effectively lost its most powerful state players just when their backroom skills are needed most.

“Philadelphia has no voice, and it’s a real problem,” political consultant Larry Ceisler said. “Who in Philadelphia can go to Tom Corbett and make the city’s case? What are the city’s leverage points?”

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Joey & Stacey, meet Jacob & Sophia

by pkerkstra on May 19, 2012

This column appeared in the Inquirer on May 18, 2012.

Philadelphia’s great white hope is back in the news, and I’m not talking about Rocky Balboa.

For the first time in 60 years, the city is adding white residents more quickly than it is losing them: 3,980, to be exact, as reported in Thursday’s Philadelphia Daily News.

Statistically, a few thousand new people in a city of 1.53 million is insignificant. And one year does not make a trend. The 2020 census could well show that the city’s white population has declined yet again.

But I would bet against it.

Granted, the odds are good that longtime working-class white Philadelphians will continue to leave the city in large numbers, fed up with the bad schools, the violence, and the taxes. The difference now, though, is that for every rowhouse Rocky who leaves, there’s a white empty-nester or young college graduate who moves in, usually to Center City or one of its bordering neighborhoods. And there’s every reason to believe that will continue for the foreseeable future.

Not all that long ago, Center City’s rebirth felt fragile, as though it could all turn to dust with a few ill-timed homicides or a bad economy. But Center City has proved its staying power over these last three years, thriving even as it endured trials like the flash mobs, Occupy Philly, and an atrocious real estate market, none of which is exactly the stuff of idealized urban living.

Center City rode over those speed bumps with ease, its momentum barely slowed. That suggests to me it has passed a tipping point: It’s no longer a delicate flower, and there’s a certain sense of inevitability to its continued expansion.

Let’s acknowledge that celebrating an increase in the city’s white population is a bit crass. But the consequences of white flight (and, increasingly, middle-class black flight) have been so disastrous for so many cities for so long that this reversal – however slight – is momentous.

Not because of race per se, but because of affluence. The white residents swelling Center City tend to be reasonably well-off and highly educated. That means they pay a lot in taxes while requiring relatively little in the way of city services, a combination that makes them a welcome addition to the poorest big city in the country. [click to continue…]

Hope & reality at Sunoco refinery

by pkerkstra on May 12, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 11, 2012.

At the risk of sounding callous, my first reaction at hearing that Philadelphia’s Sunoco refinery might close was excitement. Yes, it would mean job losses, as many as 900 good blue-collar positions, which are all too rare in this city in the first place.

Yet all I could think about was the potential. Imagine 1,400 riverfront acres – now given over to hideous distillation towers and storage tanks – cleaned up and converted into something spectacular. Parkland. A second Navy Yard. Or why not an entirely new neighborhood, just two miles south of Rittenhouse Square?

With the refinery out of the way, visitors arriving at Philadelphia International Airport would see something other than the remnants of the city’s industrial past as they crossed the Schuylkill. And whatever jobs would be lost when the refinery closed would be more than made up for by the economic activity created in such a huge development project.

But this is, sadly, a wistful fantasy. The far more likely reality is that, if the refinery does shut down, Philadelphia will be burdened with a vast tract of fallow land too tainted by more than 140 years of refining activity to be useful for anything other than industrial purposes.

Yes, theoretically, the technology exists to clean up most any site and make it safe for residential and recreational use, even when the site is the oldest continuously operating refinery in the nation.

“You can redevelop pretty much any brownfield in the country,” said Cynthia Brooks, president of Greenfield Environmental Trust Group, a brownfield-reclamation consulting firm. “It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to pay to clean it up.”

And in the case of the Sunoco refinery, those costs are almost certainly prohibitive. [click to continue…]

A great excuse to light the dynamite

by pkerkstra on May 5, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 4, 2012.

The notion that you should never waste a good crisis is virtually political dogma, and for obvious reasons.

In normal times, public bureaucracies change slowly, if at all. The public must be convinced. Opponents must be overcome. Ideas must be tested and debated.

But in a crisis, well, the usual rules don’t apply. You can do big things fast.

Today, the School District of Philadelphia is in an undeniable crisis. And sure enough, its leaders – and I include in that cast Mayor Nutter – are using a fiscal emergency to enact sweeping education reforms that, in normal times, might be an impossible sell.

In short, they want to blow the district up. They’ll do it by closing public schools en masse, enrolling about 40 percent of all students in charters by 2017, and busting the district up into 20 to 30 networks, which would operate largely independently and be run by an assortment of nonprofits, charter operators, and former principals and teachers.

And what fiscal savings can the district expect from this unprecedented reorganization? Approximately nothing.

“The academic reorganization is completely cost-neutral,” said Lori Shorr, Nutter’s chief education officer and his executive adviser to the SRC.

Or, put another way, much of the creative destruction the district unleashed this week actually has nothing to do with the fiscal crisis. The rush to charters, the achievement network – they’re not actually part of the fiscal recovery at all. Rather, they are massively ambitious reforms that have been tacked on to a budget plan that, so far at least, is extremely light on details.

Nutter obliquely acknowledged as much this week. “There are two key things going on here. The district has to save money while stabilizing its finances, while at the same time providing a high-quality education,” Nutter said. “It’s not one or the other, and it’s not serial. It’s simultaneous.”

But it doesn’t have to be. True, the fiscal emergency demands an immediate response. The educational emergency? That crisis is decades old already. [click to continue…]

The poor, the elite, the Barnes connection

by pkerkstra on May 1, 2012

This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When Albert C. Barnes was calling the shots, the door to his incomparable hoard of modern masterpieces was relatively open to the poor, and closed to the privileged. James Michener, the author, figured this out only after he was denied entry on three occasions. The fourth time he posed as a barely literate Pittsburgh steelworker. Access granted.

Well, Barnes is long since dead, and now that the elites have his collection, the time apparently has come for the poor to get out. Instead of slumming it to get in, the city’s powerful are clearing the slums, lest the presence of homeless men and women offend patrons of the new and supposedly improved Barnes Foundation, set to open on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in May.

The official story is that the new ban Mayor Nutter announced last week on the outdoor feeding of homeless people has nothing to do with the Barnes. Mark McDonald, the mayor’s spokesman, said the foundation’s opening and the clampdown were operating on independent tracks, that one had nothing to do with the other, and that the Barnes never asked the city to put an end to outdoor feeding of the homeless.

It’s sheer coincidence, in other words, that the policy takes effect just a few weeks before the Barnes opens.

That would be hard to believe even if the Nutter administration hadn’t already admitted otherwise. But it did, back in November, when Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger told the Daily News that the city has to “find a reasonable balance between the kinds of things that go on behalf of the homeless and the ability of the city to market this great asset.”

The Nutter administration has gotten pretty good lately at calling a spade a diamond. First there was the $90 million increase in property-tax revenue in Nutter’s budget. This is not a tax hike, we’re told, merely a natural “capturing” of revenue.

Now we have the ban on outdoor food handouts on city parklands. The policy isn’t there to protect the Barnes, Team Nutter says, but rather because feeding the homeless is simply not proper use of city parklands – as though the strip of sidewalk outside the Barnes was Philadelphia’s Yellowstone or El Capitan.

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Signs of life in city’s moribund tech scene

by pkerkstra on April 28, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 27, 2012.

Partly it was just bad timing. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when Apple and Microsoft and Oracle and Dell and the other tech behemoths were still babies, Philadelphia was dirty, overtaxed, and at that time clearly in decline. The city was the last place a young entrepreneur would choose to set up shop.

And so the region missed out almost entirely on the first wave of the tech boom. Other metropolises got a huge head start, and ever since, Philadelphia has been little more than a bit player in the most dynamic industry in America.

But the trouble is not just that the city lacks established tech titans of its own (excluding, of course, Comcast, which didn’t really start as a tech company so much as it evolved into one). Just as pressing a problem is the fact that there are still relatively few well-funded tech start-ups in the Philadelphia region. When analysts break down where the big venture-capital money is going, they look at California, New York, Massachusetts, Washington, and Texas. Pennsylvania? New Jersey? They get lumped into the “other” category.

But I’ve had a hard time squaring the objective reality that Philadelphia is still a tech “other” with the buoyancy and innovation on display at this year’s Philly Tech Week, a celebration of the local tech scene that features 80 events and could attract as many as 7,000 entrepreneurs, open-government data geeks, and technology fans. (Full disclosure: I was on a panel at one Tech Week event.)

For instance, Wednesday night, in an aging auditorium on South Broad that strongly recalled Philadelphia’s faded grandeur, five local tech start-ups pitched their products before an audience of 130 and a panel of three judges, including Mayor Nutter.

I didn’t see a future Facebook in the bunch, but these local start-ups had some genuinely interesting ideas. There were a mobile language-translation service, which connects travelers around the world to live human translators on demand; an iPhone coupon-clipping app; an apartment-hunting website with a novel twist; a tablet-optimized Web browser; and a product that converts routine business e-mail into a marketing platform.

“You could put those five start-ups in the room in any market and they compete. This is not a Philly B-team,” said Christopher Wink, one of three young Temple graduates who together cofounded Technically Philly, a news organization that covers the city’s tech scene and organizes Philly Tech Week, which is in its second year.

The event’s purpose mirrors what Technically Philly tries to do every day: Celebrate and build the city’s tech community. The job isn’t as hopeless as it might seem.

Philadelphia is never going to catch up with Silicon Valley or, in all likelihood, New York. But there’s no real reason the city couldn’t become a serious secondary tech hub, comparable to a Boston or a Seattle.

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The $38,920 rubber mat

by pkerkstra on April 21, 2012

This column appeared in the Inquirer on April 20, 2012.

For those of us outside government, the astronomical figures our public bureaucracies pay for seemingly simple objects and services is an impenetrable mystery. Remember the military’s $400 hammer and its $9,000 wrench? How about Councilman Jim Kenney’s $29,000 Twitter service? And now, at the Schmidt Playground in West Kensington, we have the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department’s $38,920 rubber mat.

Technically, it is a “safety surface,” a semisoft ground cover designed to cushion the blow for kids who tumble off play equipment. But it’s hard not to think of the layer as just a rubber mat poured in place onto preexisting concrete. Including installation, this surface costs an eye-opening $14 a square foot. Which would be perfectly reasonable if it were made of burnished Brazilian walnut (instead of recycled car tires) and destined for a Main Line manse (instead of a playground in North Philly).

Make no mistake: The Schmidt renovation is no boondoggle. Apart from the rubber, the cost of upgrades pays for a basic overhaul of a long-neglected playground. The city is installing new equipment, some trees, ADA ramps, and a few repairs and improvements to the aging public pool. Which is great.

All in all, the renovations will cost $285,000, which does not seem exorbitant for a well-used neighborhood resource. And yet Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents West Kensington, can’t accept that so much of the budget is being eaten up by a mat, not when so many sites in her district desperately need renovation as well.

And the Schmidt facility is not the only one. The pricey rubber surfaces are now standard issue on any playground renovation in Philadelphia.

“At some of these playgrounds, you’re spending $50,000 just for the floor,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “And there are so many other needs out there.”

That’s an understatement. Philadelphia has one of the most underfunded parks and recreation systems in the nation, particularly when it comes to capital investment. In 2009, the city’s capital parks budget amounted to $10 per person. That same year, Washington spent $144 per person, San Francisco $62, and Pittsburgh $47. [click to continue…]

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 15, 2012. 

Urban flight isn’t just for whites anymore.

Middle- and upper-middle-class blacks are emptying out of big Northern cities – Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Cleveland – in huge numbers. Some are heading south for warmer weather and more abundant jobs. But a lot are relocating just a few miles away, in the suburbs, and for all the old reasons. Safer neighborhoods. Better schools. Parking. Central air.

In all, the black population in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania suburbs grew 32 percent over the last decade, as reported by the website Metropolis. That’s a major shift. And the Trayvon Martin tragedy is hardly the first indicator that the integration of the suburbs hasn’t been friction-free.

Last month the federal Department of Education released data from 72,000 schools across the country that showed black students are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than other students. Intrigued, I looked at the local data.

Few will be surprised to hear that in Philadelphia black students are disciplined – with punishments such as suspensions and expulsions – more frequently than white and Asian students.

But look to suburbia for the most glaring cases of racially unequal student punishment in the Delaware Valley.

Black public school students in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties make up just 14 percent of the total student body in the 53 local suburban school districts surveyed by the Department of Education. And yet they accounted for more than half of all serious suspensions in the suburbs.

Here’s another number that puts these massive disparities in perspective: A black public school student in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania suburbs is 12 times as likely as a white student to be suspended more than once. That blows away the disparity in Philadelphia, where black students are 2.8 times as likely as white students to get suspended more than once.

The gap between the discipline of white and black students in the city’s suburbs is huge compared with the national average as well: Across the United States, black students account for 18 percent of the student body, and 46 percent of those students suspended more than once.

When he released the data, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said: “The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

So what does it say that in Philadelphia’s suburbs the disparities top even the depressing national numbers? Are we to believe that black students in Philadelphia’s suburbs are really that much more poorly behaved than either their white counterparts or black students in the rest of the country? Or are these figures evidence of some seriously troubling suburban teacher and administrator bias against black students? [click to continue…]