At budget address, labor sent the message

by pkerkstra on March 14, 2012

This column appeared on March 13, 2012.

After the choreographed shouting was over, and the balconies packed with union rowdies had emptied out, municipal labor boss Pete Matthews smiled broadly, crossed his legs, and leaned back in his chair, content as a cat in a sunny window.

District Council 33, the union representing nearly 10,000 blue-collar city workers, had accomplished what it had set out to do. The hundreds of workers who attended Mayor Nutter’s budget address last week booed him with vigor. They drowned out sections of his speech, and more or less took over one of the biggest annual political events of the year.

To the casual observer, they looked like bullies. Nutter hung in there and kept his cool, but he’s not as nimble as Chris Christie when heckled, and he failed to turn the moment to his advantage. Really, nobody emerged from the budget address looking all that good. Indeed, only the long, disreputable (and occasionally violent) history of City Council kept the spectacle out of the chamber’s top 10 most cringe-worthy moments.

But the union’s performance wasn’t intended to sway public opinion to labor’s side. Its showing was designed to remind the city’s political class, particularly City Council, that the blue- and white-collar municipal unions are a) seething after working four years without a contract and b) still powerful. At that, they succeeded magnificently.

“It’s old pressure, turned way up,” said Council’s majority leader, Curtis Jones Jr., when asked if Council was feeling additional heat from the unions.

Earlier, before Nutter faced his hostile audience, Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. introduced a resolution urging the mayor to “negotiate a Fair Contract” with the blue- and white-collar unions. The union members, relegated to Council’s version of the cheap seats, clapped like crazy.

Once the mayor arrived and the booing began, Council President Darrell L. Clarke – who was charged at the budget address with the thankless task of maintaining order – pleaded with the union members to pipe down and “respect the house.” But even as he did so, he assured the union members that he was an ally.

Until now, the lack of union contracts for the city’s blue- and white-collar unions hasn’t captured much political attention. The lack of a new deal arguably made sense for both sides. The Nutter administration was able to unilaterally freeze cost-of-living and other pay hikes, and thus save some money on salaries, while the unions were able to avoid the long-term contract concessions that can accompany bad economic times.

That uneasy truce looks to be over. Perhaps because the union’s members have finally had enough. Perhaps because Matthews faces a reelection fight of his own this May, and needs to look as though he’s doing something for his members. [click to continue…]

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Feb. 28, 2012.

The renowned and controversial conservative scholar Charles Murray has identified the wellspring of all that ails poor white America, and wouldn’t you just know, it’s in Philadelphia.

Fishtown, to be precise; the once-healthy waterfront community east of the El that, over the last 50 years, devolved into a rare white urban ghetto. The residents of Murray’s Fishtown – particularly its adult men – are such a godless, shiftless, morally bankrupt bunch that he serves them up as a metaphor for the social decline of white working-class America.

In his new book, Coming Apart, Murray posits that low-income whites have abandoned what he calls “the founding virtues” the country was built on: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. In the halcyon old days, Murray says, rich and poor alike embraced those virtues. Not anymore. Murray contends that while well-off white America generally stays married, works hard, and goes to church, low-income whites increasingly do not, which has had calamitous effects on the poor.

To make his analysis more accessible, Murray lumps well-off white Americans into two composite communities: one is called Belmont (after a well-to-do Boston suburb), the other Fishtown.

And presto. Now the national elite who read Murray’s influential books will think of Philadelphia when they imagine poor white trash.

That’s unfortunate, but there’s no getting around the fact that Fishtown (the real one) has been troubled for a long time. Yet anyone familiar with the neighborhood’s history knows that the problems Murray ably documents only emerged on a broad scale when Philadelphia’s industrial economy collapsed and the solid-paying low-skilled jobs that supported Fishtown disappeared.

Jack Frost Sugar. Stetson Hat. Luithlen Dye. Rose Mills. Quaker Lace. Ortlieb Brewing. Ajax Metal. All of them – and many others – were situated within, or a few short blocks from, Fishtown. And all of them are gone. [click to continue…]

Acknowledging the obvious: gun control on the ropes

by pkerkstra on February 16, 2012

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

The gunfight is over, and the cities lost. The question is: Do they realize it yet?

For decades now, large majorities of urbanites – the people, the politicians, the interest groups – have favored stricter controls on guns, for reasons city residents find self-evident. In the last five years in Philadelphia, 1,656 people have been slain, and of those, more than 1,300 died of gunshot wounds. For many city residents, myself included, guns represent a plague, not protection.

From the perspective of bloody Philadelphia, gun-rights advocates – and their allies in Harrisburg and Washington – appear all too willing to tolerate death in the city so they can protect the sanctity of the Second Amendment in the country.

Gun owners don’t think about the debate in these terms, of course. They see gun control as an assault on a constitutionally guaranteed right, a classic case of government overreach that threatens their ability to protect their homes and families. What’s more, many are convinced gun control actually leads to more violence, not less.

Right or wrong, their arguments are winning. Big. Cities would do well to realize that new gun-control legislation is, for now at least, a nonstarter, and to focus on other crime-fighting strategies.

Instead, we have New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a Super Bowl ad calling for “commonsense reforms that would save lives,” while desperately trying to look like a regular guy and not some overbearing statist. Bloomberg is chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group that claims 600 members, including Mayor Nutter. Personally, I find its aims admirable, and given Bloomberg’s immense personal fortune and political independence, he’s well-suited to the quixotic role of gun-control champion.

In the short term, though, his agenda has no shot. According to an October Gallup poll, only 26 percent of Americans favor a handgun ban. More stunning is the finding that only 43 percent favored outlawing “assault rifles.” Good luck, Mayor Bloomberg. [click to continue…]

A brave face on crime, not that it matters

by pkerkstra on February 1, 2012

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

In 2007, on the night he was elected mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter began his acceptance speech with a moment of silence for Police Officer Chuck Cassidy, who had been killed a week earlier at an Oak Lane doughnut shop after walking into a robbery in progress.

Nutter let the silence stretch for a good, long while. Then he said: “It’s a new day. It’s a new day. It’s a new day. It’s a new day.”

Those were the words the city needed to hear. Though the final death toll that year wasn’t as apocalyptic as feared, for much of 2007, Philadelphia felt like a metropolis on the brink. Former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson kept telling anyone who asked that, really, there wasn’t much the cops could do to stop the killings. “It’s impossible to solve a problem we did not create,” he said on one occasion.

Nutter’s “new day” was about rejecting that defeatism.

He’d bring in a new commissioner with a fantastic record, Charles Ramsey, and together they’d modernize the force, deploy cops in a way that actually made sense, knit together a vast network of surveillance cameras, and more. Why wouldn’t their plans work? New York had done it. So, too, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami.

For a while, Philadelphia looked as though it would join those cities’ ranks. Homicides declined 15 percent Nutter’s first year in office, and they fell further still in 2009. But then the drop-off stalled, and then it reversed, and not for the first time. In Philadelphia, relatively good years – like 1999, 2002, or 2009 – are often followed by periods of inexplicable mayhem.

Indeed, as The Inquirer calculated this month, about as many murders happened in Nutter’s first term as in Street’s. All that effort, all that attention, and still as many dead bodies.

And now a bizarrely bloody January. Already, 32 people are dead, and that figure could be outdated by the time this column is published. The numbers on their own are bad enough – worse than any January in at least the last five years – but it is the random nature of the violence, the targeting of innocents, that has unsettled the city, just as it did in 2007.

Back then, we could tell ourselves that Johnson was beat, ground down after years of service. Same for Mayor Street; he’d taken his big $100 million swing at violent crime with Safe Streets in 2002, and seemed to agree with Johnson that there was only so much the city could do.

What do we tell ourselves now? Ramsey is an outstanding commissioner. Nutter is completely focused on crime. And yet their efforts, and those of the entire force, seem no match for a few balmy winter weekends.

[click to continue…]

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

For decades, Philadelphia’s middle-class institutions have been going down like bowling pins. There was the Navy Yard, which once provided 60,000 solidly middle-class jobs, now arguably best known as the chic headquarters of Urban Outfitters. Budd Co. left in 2002, Sunoco will pack up later this year.

And now the latest body blow; 49 Catholic school closings and mergers, including 18 in Philadelphia alone, affecting about 21,000 students.

Even for non-Catholics, that sort of assault on an institution as long-lived and stolid as parochial school is unsettling, as though another fissure had opened in the region’s social bedrock.

To be sure, the crisis in Catholic education has been a long time coming, and the causes are complex: disgust over sex scandals, poor archdiocesan management, a shortage of low-cost nun-powered labor, and so on. But this disaster isn’t entirely of the church’s own making.

The middle class is the natural market for parochial school, particularly in cities like Philadelphia. Tuition is reasonable and the education is often better than public-school alternatives.

The church’s problem – make that one of many, many problems – is that the middle class is shrinking across the country, and the decline is particularly acute in the Philadelphia region.

In November, researchers at Stanford University released a disturbing study documenting the erosion of mixed-income and middle-class neighborhoods, a phenomenon that has turned communities into increasingly segregated neighborhoods of rich and poor.

Nowhere, they found, was the trend more pronounced than in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. In 1970, when the region’s middle class was starting to feel the strain, the area ranked 43d in income segregation. Now it ranks third.

[click to continue…]

Sau Paulo on the Schuylkill

by pkerkstra on January 4, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 3, 2012.

Four years ago, when Michael Nutter was first sworn in as mayor, Philadelphia was awash in irrational exuberance, and it was Nutter who had opened the floodgates.

Remember the thousands who encircled City Hall just to shake the man’s hand? Or the preposterously ambitious goals Nutter outlined in his buoyant inaugural address? Double the college graduation rate! Halve K-12 dropouts! Cut homicides by 30 percent to 50 percent! “It’s a new day,” he said, too many times to count.

Monday, in his second inaugural address, Nutter did his best to take back those promises, set them on fire, and throw the ashes into an unusually strong easterly wind. This time, there was no hint of the near-giddy optimism that characterized his administration’s early days in office.

Four years ago, Nutter told us Philadelphia was “on the brink of greatness” and entering a “renaissance period” whose beginning happened to coincide precisely with his election as mayor.

On Monday, Nutter warned that the city was increasingly riven between the haves and have-nots, a kind of Sao Paulo on the Schuylkill, with failing schools, legions of ex-felons, and a violence-prone population of undereducated teens. These tenacious problems, Nutter said, “hold us back as a city, they stretch the fabric of our society to a breaking point.”

Happy New Year!

The only similarity between the two inaugurals was the moment early in both addresses where Nutter choked up and grew teary. One wonders if he was crying for an entirely different reason this time around.

As an exercise in expectation-lowering, the address did its job. But it probably wasn’t necessary, not after the experience of the last four years. Whether it was Nutter’s own shortcomings or the wretched economy (a ready excuse that Nutter didn’t once mention in Monday’s address), his first term has to be considered a disappointment.

That’s not because Nutter’s been a bad mayor. He hasn’t. But rather because most of us expected a lot more, in part because Nutter told us to at his first inaugural. [click to continue…]

China’s vibrancy putting Chinatowns at risk

by pkerkstra on December 7, 2011

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 6, 2011.

Few Philadelphia neighborhoods have been forced to fend off existential threats as frequently as Chinatown.

In the 1980s, the construction of the Vine Street Expressway literally divided the community in half. A few years later, a federal prison was built on Chinatown’s eastern edge. In 2000, Chinatown residents fought off Mayor Street’s proposed downtown Phillies ballpark, and then they banded together again in 2009 when the city and state wanted to put a casino in Market East on Chinatown’s southern border.

Those threats probably pale, though, compared with a complicated combination of growing pressures that are taking the China out of Chinatowns in cities across the nation, as reported this month by Bonnie Tsui in The Atlantic.

New York’s Chinatown is losing population, San Francisco’s Chinese population has grown old and gray, and smaller Chinatowns – like the one in Washington, D.C. – have almost disappeared.

That hasn’t happened in Philadelphia. Indeed, few corners of the city are more crowded and alive than those in Chinatown. Overall, the community’s population grew about 60 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an increase that is yet another testament to the incredible resilience of this Philadelphia neighborhood.

But any dense, urban ethnic enclave has a certain fragility; immigration patterns can change pretty quickly, after all, and second-generation families typically move to other sections of the city or to the suburbs, where homes are larger.

Like most Chinatowns, Philadelphia’s is the commercial heart of the city’s increasingly diffuse Chinese community. But it is also the default residential choice for new working-class Chinese immigrants. Which makes Chinatown particularly vulnerable when immigration slows, as it has in recent years, according to John Chin, executive director of the Chinatown Commercial Development Corp.

A growing number of would-be immigrants, it seems, are concluding that better economic opportunities exist in booming China than in the stagnating United States. [click to continue…]

Temple’s moment

by pkerkstra on November 13, 2011

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 7, 2011.

Apologies to Penn and due respect to Drexel, but the most remarkable and encouraging local higher education story of the last 15 years has been the rebirth and reinvention of Temple University.

Encouraging because the forces behind Temple’s transformation bode extremely well for Philadelphia’s future. Remarkable because not that long ago, Temple was a pit.

Think back to the 1980s and early 1990s, when Philadelphia was in sharp decline. Temple was, too. Enrollment was low. The university was so starved for cash and kids that it welcomed even weak applicants. At night, the school had an abandoned air, as commuting students headed home before nightfall.

That Temple is long gone. Well-regarded university president Ann Weaver Hart, who announced last week that she will retire this academic year, leaves her successor a school that is full to bursting with students. The area is now alive around the clock, with an estimated 11,000 to 12,000 students living on or close to campus. Its academic reputation is improving, if not yet stellar, and the university has proved competitive in attracting top faculty.

“What people tell me is that over the last several years, Temple has become an increasingly central part of the economic, social and educational life of the city,” said Hart, who has said she is resigning to care for her ill mother, who lives in Utah.

To a point, Temple’s recovery can be credited to its faculty, staff, and past three presidents, starting with Peter Liacouras, who in the mid-1980s promoted the prophetic notion (ridiculed at the time) that Temple’s future was as a residential university. Liacouras’ successor, David Adamany, irritated professors with his exacting standards and imperious style, but he also obliterated the university’s long-standing acceptance of academic mediocrity. Hart calmed the waters and has helped the institution get a handle on its growth.

But for the most part, Temple’s transformation has been a bottom-up story, driven by a generation of students who wanted the gritty urban education that their parents and siblings feared and shunned.

“We’ve come to be more proud of our position in the city of Philadelphia and to really embrace it as a part of the life of a student at Temple University,” Hart said. [click to continue…]

Forbes has a terrific piece today from a Philadelphia accountant on the saga of a poet – yes a poet – was was told by the City of Philadelphia that he owes $10,000+ in taxes for a single reading he gave at St. Joseph’s University in 2007. What immense fortune did the poet earn for that reading to warrant such a steep bill? $2,000.

The maze that is Philadelphia’s insane tax system is nearly impossible to navigate. I went on Revenue’s web site and counted four separate types of tax that may apply to individuals and fourteen separate types of tax that may apply to businesses. Keep in mind that these taxes are in addition to state and federal taxes.

E-filing? Forget about it – unless you happen to use Internet Explorer 5.0. You get the feeling that the entire system is, in fact, being run from a Commodore 64 in the basement of City Hall.

Philadelphia’s entire revenue system is indeed a wreck. Stay tuned, as there’s more to come on this in the Inquirer and PlanPhilly very soon.

Flash mobs, Nutter and race shaming

by pkerkstra on August 11, 2011

Michael Nutter’s flash mob-inspired Cosby moment at the pulpit on Sunday was a fascinating political move for a mayor who—more than any before him—stands astride the wide chasm between white and black in Philadelphia.

Nutter spoke for about 30 minutes. He apologized, on behalf of the city, to Philadelphia’s law-abiding residents. He lectured irresponsible parents. He warned flash mobbers that they’d be locked up. But the money phrase—the one that warranted pull-quote treatment on the cover of the Daily News—was this: “Quite honestly, you’ve damaged your own race.”

Whatever you think of the remark—whether you consider it scapegoating or right on target—it was perhaps Nutter’s bravest political moment as Mayor. For one, Nutter’s standing among black voters is tenuous at best. He’s seen by many black voters, rightly or wrongly, as not one of them. For a mayor with that problem, to walk into Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, and castigate African-American parents—fathers in particular—for not taking responsibility for their children takes some serious guts.

Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall took the cynical view that the whole thing was a pander to white voters. “At that point, he wasn’t talking to black people anymore,” she wrote.

I don’t buy it. Maybe what Nutter did was counterproductive. Maybe he should have shown more empathy. Maybe he should have stayed out of the pulpit altogether and stuck to the nuts and bolts business of police patrols and curfews.

But Nutter meant what he said, and he didn’t say it to shore up white support. I mean let’s face it, he already has plenty of that.

No, Nutter actually believes this stuff. If you look at his career, and his public remarks over the years, it’s crystal clear he feels that Philadelphia’s black community is responsible for a lot of its own ills. It might not be ideal that he chose to air these thoughts so publicly in the aftermath of a series of attacks on white people in Center City, but it’s far from the first time Nutter has preached the gospel of black self-reliance.

“When we were younger, we didn’t need a law, we didn’t need a bill, we didn’t need a resolution, we didn’t need a government to tell us: ‘Come outside and sweep your steps, wash down your sidewalk, and make your neighborhoods clean,’” Nutter said in 2007, after winning the Democratic nomination for mayor.

“We didn’t need anybody to tell us that because we cared. About where we lived, and who we were and what we were about. We need to bring that back, a sense of community pride, a sense of ownership, a sense of caring about each other. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”

And as Monica Yant Kinney points out today, after a Greek Picnic in 1998 led to violence, Nutter said  ”It’s not about what the white man did,” he said of those incidents. “It’s not about slavery or oppression. It’s about nothing. It’s about being ignorant and disrespectful.”

As he is fond of reminding people, Nutter grew up in a working-class black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. His parents had their share of problems (his father may have drank too much), but they nonetheless expected a lot from their children. Nutter obviously met those expectations, winning a scholarship to St. Joe’s Prep before going on to Penn. At times, Nutter seems to be thinking: If I could do it, why the hell can’t more of you?

Not being black, I don’t feel remotely qualified to say whether the Mayor’s occasional forays into this kind of territory help matters or not. It’s certainly easy to imagine such rhetoric backfiring, further alienating already pissed-off black teens.

But don’t for a second assume this is an act. Nutter means every word of it, and he always has.

Seriously, it’s just too expensive. My latest column for the Inquirer is here. Excerpt:

You know money is tight when politicians – Republicans, no less – start talking about how expensive it is to lock people up.

In more normal times, few things get elected officials more excited than rigging the justice system with mandatory minimum sentences and other legislative maneuvers designed to stiffen the spines of squishy judges. The idea, of course, is to ensure that offenders, violent or otherwise, do the hardest time possible.

Voters are a skittish bunch. In large cities and small towns alike, they tend to think crime is getting worse though criminal violence has declined steadily since the early 1990s.

So politically, it has made sense to “get tough,” indefinitely. Fiscally though, the lock-everybody-up mania has been a disaster.

As reported by The Inquirer’s Joelle Farrell, Pennsylvania’s corrections budget now stands at $1.86 billion. That’s nearly half of Philadelphia’s entire annual operating budget. And it’s no wonder. The commonwealth’s prisons are now home to 51,000 inmates, up 41 percent since 1999.

The good news is that, if the political will is there, it’s not all that hard to get a handle on prison costs. It doesn’t require a huge drop in crime. It doesn’t require a willingness to let violent felons off easy. What it requires is a modicum of judgment, a realization that it’s not necessarily in the public’s best interest to go for the maximum punishment in every single instance.

The virtues of selling out

by pkerkstra on August 8, 2011

Chris Wink thinks there’s an upside when big outside companies buy out Philly ones. I take the point. But frankly I’d rather it was Philly giants buying Philly startups.

Selling Out: why some acquisitions are good and others are bad for Philadelphia business « Christopher Wink.

I  hadn’t spent much time at all in Atlantic City until very recently, when Philadelphia magazine sent me there to figure out how/if the city can survive as gambling revenue collapses. While there, I witnessed the aftermath of a shooting, saw a bag lady urinating beneath a hotel balcony and tiptoed around some hard-luck dudes a couple of cops had pinned to the sidewalk.

Also: I loved the place, and hope to go back soon. Yeah. Strange. I try to explain it better in the story. Here’s an excerpt:

LONG BEFORE THIS TRIP, and without ever really thinking all that hard about it, I had somehow decided that Atlantic City just wasn’t the place for me. I enjoy gambling only when I win, so I couldn’t see too much reason to go. That ambivalent take was all wrong. As I soon figured out, Atlantic City is packed with good reasons both to stay the weekend and to stay the hell away altogether.

A few years ago, Atlantic City would have been more or less indifferent to a non-gaming- tourist like myself. Not anymore. Gaming- revenue, the city’s lifeblood, has been in free fall three years running. Casinos with famous names—Resorts and the Trump Marina—have been sold off for less than some Shore vacation homes. The Hilton-, the spot where Frank Sinatra used to perform, stopped paying its mortgage in 2009.

Citywide, casino profits plummeted nearly 61 percent between 2006 and 2010. Adjusted for inflation, those profits are now at their lowest level since the early ’80s. Not even the mighty Borgata is immune: Last month, for a fifth straight quarter, it reported falling revenue compared to the same period one year earlier. Gaming executives say Atlantic City is now getting by on about $2 billion less in annual gaming revenue than it was in 2006.

To prevent gaming’s collapse from taking the whole town with it, Atlantic City is banking on a pair of big changes: a state takeover of half the city, and a fundamental market readjustment on the part of the casinos, which now recognize that their gambling-dominated models won’t work in a world where there are craps tables in Chester and baccarat in Bensalem. Revel, the striking new resort on the north end of the Boardwalk, slated to open next May, most completely represents the new thinking: gaming as just a piece of a total resort experience, one that actually embraces Atlantic City’s greatest assets—the Boardwalk, the ocean and the wide beach. The new state “tourism district” may be just as important. It exists primarily to eliminate, or at least better hide, Atlantic City’s enduring seediness, which Governor Chris Christie is convinced is the real reason for the city’s problems.

If these changes work, Atlantic City might finally become what its boosters have always billed it as: a playground for the masses-, equally enticing for families, bachelorette parties, and sophisticated couples on a weekend escape. If they don’t, well, the doomsday scenario is easy to imagine. Casinos begin to abandon Absecon Island. Unemployment rises, crime spikes, and the city becomes Camden on the ocean, with a Boardwalk instead of an aquarium. The great irony, of course, is that gambling was billed as the only alternative to just such a fate when it was legalized back in 1976.

Reading the drumbeat of corruption news out of City Hall, it’s easy to assume that the Philadelphia government is as ethically challenged as ever. Federal prosecutors have charged a Philadelphia lawyer with fraud for spending cash from a city business development loan on office expenses like Eagles and 76ers tickets, a senior city technology official was fired after being wined and dined by companies hoping to do business with the city, a contractor allegedly siphoned off more than $1 million in public funds by using bogus billings, and a grand jury began poking into the operations of the Sheriff’s Office. And that’s just in 2011.

Before that there was the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Board of Revision of Taxes, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions… You get the point.

Wasn’t Mayor Nutter supposed to drain the swamp? Wasn’t he supposed to make us believe that city government is at least clean, if not always super effective?

That’s actually exactly what’s going on here. Unlike the probes of the past, in a lot of these cases it is Nutter’s own investigators who are digging up the dirt. In case after case, they’re going after corrupt actors on their own or dishing to the feds. [click to continue…]

Zoning matters, so try to stay awake

by pkerkstra on July 27, 2011

When newspaper editors want to haze their young reporters—or drive older ones into early retirement—they send them to zoning board meetings. There, amid the ceaseless debate over easements and stormwater runoff, souls die. It is excruciatingly boring stuff.

And yet—yes, there’s a yet—the tedious matters managed by the zoning code and zoning boards (which generally exist to rule on cases where property owners want exceptions to the zoning code) have a huge impact on the look and feel of all communities. Can a developer put a skyscraper where the old laundromat used to be? How about a private pool or tattoo parlor?

The point is, zoning matters. A city without zoning looks, well, like Houston, which is the biggest U.S. city without a formal zoning code. Houston, if you have not been, is hell on earth.

Naturally Philadelphia’s zoning code is outdated, messy and a major hindrance to development. It dates back to the Eisenhower-era, and is so ill-suited for today’s world that a huge percentage of all significant projects are out of step with the zoning code.

Which means that, to get their projects built, developers have to go hat in hand to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. And that’s where everything runs off the rails.

Winning ZBA approval is all about politics. You won’t get anywhere at the zoning board without first having won over the district council member who represents the neighborhood where the project is sited. And winning a district council member’s approval is about two things: making kissy faces at the council person, and, convincing the local neighborhood associations and community groups that the project is in their best interest.

Note that I said in their best interest, not the community’s best interest. [click to continue…]

Philly is rising, from the depths of hell

by pkerkstra on July 19, 2011

Have you heard? Philly is rising. It’s not clear from what or where, exactly. From the ashes, maybe. Perhaps the depth of hell. Or it could just be from the ranks of second (third?) tier cities. How do I know Philly is rising? Because Mayor Nutter says so. Constantly. The PhillyRising hashtag has become the mayor’s online equivalent of a thumbs up. And it’s not just him. His whole administration has embraced the slogan.

The phrase was coined by deputy managing director John Farrell, who needed a name for a new city community development program (which actually is a really good program).

As a program name, it’s just fine. The initiative targets blighted neighborhoods, rough, often crime-ridden communities that need all the rising they can get. But is this really how we want to think about Philadelphia as a whole? A town on the rebound? Points for honesty, I guess. But good god, where’s the pride?

I’m reminded of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s “building beyond expectations.” Or SEPTA’s classic: “We’re getting there.” I have some suggestions in the same vein. How about: “Better than Baltimore.” Or: “Philly: Our homicide rate is no longer in the top 10!”

Actually, the City of Philadelphia already has an official slogan (not that anyone uses it): “Life, Liberty and You.” It’s self-evidently bland and inane, the mushy product of a 65-member committee (no, seriously, the committee had 65 members).

Nutter was test-driving a totally different slogan earlier this year: “Philly. It’s just better.” I kind of liked that one. It didn’t smack of the permanent civic inferiority complex that PhillyRising conjures up in my mind.

But Nutter and company aren’t really looking to brand the city here. What they’re actually trying to do is brand the administration. “PhillyRising” is their shorthand for Nutter’s accomplishments, which they feel have been given short shrift by the media and really the public at large. So Nutter and company have taken to slapping the #PhillyRising hashtag to any bit of good news they want to promote. In that context, it works pretty well. Short. Snappy. And pretty much meaningless, like most slogans.

So rise away, team Nutter. But just remember that nothing, nothing, beats the City of Brotherly Love.

(This originally appeared on PhillyPost)

On booze and communities

by pkerkstra on July 19, 2011

Alcohol is a really curious commodity, one with an outsized ability to shape communities, for good and ill. My Inquirer column today looks at how alcohol both fuels and slows community redevelopment, in the context of the potential legalization of Pennsylvania’s state store system. Full story here. An excerpt:

We don’t usually think of it this way, but booze can be a force for tremendous community good and a real redevelopment engine. Consider Northern Liberties. Long before the Piazza opened up and the fine restaurants moved in, Northern Liberties was known for its bar scene. Establishments like the Standard Tap and the 700 Club (now more than a decade old) were among the first major commercial investments in the neighborhood, helping to draw developer Bart Blatstein’s interest. … But as obviously good as more and better booze options might be for Center City, the case is less clear in other urban neighborhoods. For one thing, if the experience of other states is any guide, we can expect an overabundance of liquor stores to move into low-income neighborhoods.

R.I.P. Tax Cutter, Mike Nutter

by pkerkstra on July 15, 2011

See if you can identify this unnamed elected official:

“We cannot grow, or even preserve, our revenue base unless we cut taxes.”
Tax reductions, “are all about jobs. The fiscally responsible thing we can do is lower the tax burden so businesses can grow.”
“In whatever capacity I’m speaking out, I’ll continue to push for tax cuts.”

Who is that tax-cutting champion? Is it Sen. Pat Toomey? Gov. Corbett or Gov. Christie? No. Those words—and many more like them—were all spoken by Michael Nutter before he was mayor.

The same guy, in other words, who is proposing this week to raise taxes a third straight year. Since taking office, Nutter has presided over a sales tax increase, a 10 percent property tax hike and a freeze on scheduled city-funded wage tax cuts passed in the Street administration (cuts that Councilman Nutter championed). There’s a new garbage fee for small businesses and apartment buildings and higher taxes for tobacco sellers and parking lot operators.

And that’s just what Nutter’s actually gotten passed. He tried but failed for a single-family home trash fee in 2009. And he’s working Council hard this week to get a tax on sugary drinks passed to come up with some cash for the school district. If that fails, property taxes could be going up. Again.

So what the hell happened to Mike Nutter, tax cutter? [click to continue…]

PhillyStat zombie returns

by pkerkstra on July 12, 2011

Back when Michael Nutter first took office, the initiative called PhillyStat was as good a symbol as any that Change Had Come. Drawing its inspiration from corporate performance management practices and New York’s vaunted “CrimeStat” program (which some have credited with that city’s ever-falling crime rate), PhillyStat was supposed to make city managers better at their jobs by actually tracking the work their departments did. It would be televised (points for transparency), driven by hard facts and figures (points for accountability) and customer oriented (points for not treating residents like scum).

It was, for Philadelphia city government, a revolutionary concept. And it would all be led by Managing Director Camille Barnett, a star of the city government seminar circuit who Nutter hired to drag City Hall into the modern age.

But PhillyStat bombed. Hard. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, PhillyStat sessions quickly became City Hall’s version of Dilbert and Office Space rolled into one. The meetings were long, dull, and in the eyes of many senior managers, a complete waste of time. Barnett proved to be pretty good at beating up on officials who weren’t performing, but not so good at figuring out how to actually improve the departments’ work.

And so when Barnett mercifully left city government last year, her replacement—Managing Director Richard Negrin—immediately “suspended” PhillyStat. I figured it was gone for good.

But now PhillyStat is back. Kind of. Negrin is starting small with PhillyStat 2.0, working principally with the departments he directly controls, most of which are internal service departments like technology, personnel and records. That means those who hated the old PhillyStat the most—like Deputy Mayor for Transportation Rina Cutler—only have to participate once a quarter. That’s probably a good call. PhillyStat has such a toxic reputation among some city managers that forcing them to take part more often would only backfire.

Negrin hopes that his approach to PhillyStat will eventually win over converts. There are a few key differences between Barnett’s model and Negrin’s. To begin with, Negrin said, it’s not enough to measure performance.

“That only gets you so far. We need a more robust, true management performance system that actually helps our departments manage internally. This new model is incredibly different,” Negrin said.

He’s created senior management teams for each department. That’s not so new. The twist is that the teams include managers from other departments like finance, human resources, law and technology. It might seem like a dead obvious call, but Negrin said it hasn’t been done in city government before.

“It’s how I did things in the private sector. You would never hold a strategic meeting in the private sector without your chief technology officer, without your finance guy, without your lawyer. You just wouldn’t do that,” Negrin said.

He’s also naming a “customer service officer” for each of his leadership teams. Their job—one they’ll get special training for—is to act as the customers’ representative at each PhillyStat session.

Lastly, Negrin says PhillyStat sessions—and the department activities they’re monitoring—will be better linked to Nutter’s strategic vision for the city, which break down into five goals (which are themselves a topic for another day).

Given PhillyStat’s past performance, it’s hard to be optimistic about any of this. But Negrin is a good choice to run this kind of operation. He’s one of the few senior Nutter administration officials with management experience in the private sector (at Aramark), and he did impressive work in a short stint at the Board of Revision of Taxes when Nutter sent him in to restore order to an agency that was spinning out of control. What’s more, the model HAS worked in other cities. There’s really no good reason why it can’t work in Philadelphia as well. Eventually.

 (This originally appeared on PhillyPost)

Some welcome mat

by pkerkstra on June 29, 2011

I was right there in spirit with City Council when it voted in its final pre-summer session to give the finger to the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The department’s “Secure Communities” program—which gets local police departments to hand over arrest records to the feds who use the information to identify deportation targets—might make sense in Texas, Arizona or some other place where illegal immigration has become a major problem. But it’s a bad fit for Philadelphia, a city that sorely needs the growth, vitality and sheer population boost that immigration provides (even, yes, when it’s illegal).

Secure Communities was billed as a way for the feds to more easily identify and deport serious criminals. “They told us they were going to get Mexican drug cartels and terrorists off the street,” says Councilman Jim Kenney. But it hasn’t worked out that way at all in Philadelphia. Since the program’s inception in late 2008, 583 suspects arrested here have been transferred into ICE custody for deportation. Of those, 348 were never convicted of a crime, and 480 had no prior criminal history or only minor non-violent misdemeanor convictions.

Kenney’s concern is twofold. First, he worries illegal immigrants will be more hesitant to report criminal activity to the police so long as ICE is peeking at the arrest records. Second, he thinks this does damage to Philadelphia’s reputation internationally, making it less likely that immigrants—including legal ones—will choose to settle in the city. “I don’t want us to be known as the city that deports,” Kenney says.

And so he got City Council to unanimously pass a resolution calling on Mayor Nutter, the court system and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey not to renew the city agreement with ICE that enables Secure Communities. The agreement is set to expire August 31st.

It doesn’t look like Council’s view will win out. Everett Gillison, Nutter’s deputy mayor for public safety, is reviewing the program now, but he says “barring some change in our understanding or some new information, we will renew.” Last time around, the Nutter administration changed the terms of the agreement and some internal systems, which has stripped the names of victims and witnesses from the information transmitted to ICE. That’s a real improvement. But I expect the subtleties of the arrangement are lost on an illegal immigrant who witnessed a crime and has heard that Philly police share data with ICE.

Kenney thinks Nutter should follow the lead of Massachusetts, Illinois and the state of New York, all of which have declined to renew their Secure Communities agreements. The problem with this approach is that the federal government—after some hemming and hawing—now insists that participation is mandatory. Plus, all the information ICE gleans from the arrest reports has long been shared as a matter of course with the FBI (which, duh, is a federal entity). So it’s not clear what good it actually does Nutter to trash the renewal papers (and maybe irritate Washington while he’s at it). “This is the law. It is the federal law. We don’t do things for show,” Gillison says, when asked about the practicality of saying no to the feds.

I think the Nutter administration deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one. It has been, on the whole, friendly to immigrant communities, and it’s certainly clear to me that administration officials fully understand that immigration is an important piece of the Mayor’s goal of increasing the city’s population. “If you look at our entire body of work in the area of immigration, I think people would be hard-pressed to say we are hostile to it,” says Gillison.

(This originally appeared on PhillyPost)