Talking issues with the Mayor himself

Hizzoner, Mayor Michael Nutter, called in to WHYY this morning to chat for a few minutes with Morning Edition host and executive producer, Brenda Jorett.

Their wide ranging discussion included the Mayor’s outreach to the region’s other elected officials, summer recreation programs and their role in his anti-crime plan, and advances in the city government’s customer service in anticipation of the oncoming 3-1-1 complaint and information line. You can listen to the entire conversation here.

This is a great time to start promoting our first episode of the It’s Our City tv show, on June 20th. Mayor Michael Nutter will be in our WHYY studios for a live program that will include call-ins from viewers and taking questions over email and the web. I’ll let you know about the exact time when we nail that down but I think it’s going to be 8pm (prime time!).

Just a few minutes ago, Ben Waxman interviewed Managing Director Camille Barnett for a special It’s Our Money (our companion project focusing on the city’s and region’s budget issues) podcast. Once that podcast is edited, I’ll pass it along. For now, check out the It’s Our Money site for all of your city, state, school district and public agency budget needs.

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Filed under City Services

Greater Greater Philadelphia?

(h/t to Atrios for pointing out the existence of this fine blog)

It’s nice to see other cities having their own problems with zoning and land use. If for no other reason, we can learn from them if they fix it or learn what not to do if they screw it up even more.

And it doesn’t even take a subscription to the Washington Post to have access to this knowledge – just an internet connection.

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Filed under Other Cities, planning, Population Growth

How fond memories of a 1970s sci-fi flick is helping shape city policy

Mayor Nutter’s press office just released a statement of support for efforts to preserve the historic Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street. The site, which has been eyed by a number of developers, some of whom have had pretty cozy relationships with past mayors, has recently been designated as one of the most endangered historic buildings in America.

The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, in an attempt to save the Boyd, submitted a nomination to the city’s Historical Commission requesting that the building be designated as an historical building. In the letter to the owner, Clear Channel Entertainment, the Historical Commission explains what such a designation could mean:

Designation entails some restrictions. To ensure authenticity and compatibility, the Commission reviews all proposed alterations to historic resources. The Commission also has jurisdiction over the issuance of demolition permits for historic properties.

The letter goes on to say that the Historical Commission assumes that jurisdiction immediately and that if the Commission does in fact designate the building as historic, that jurisdiction will continue.

Anyway, it appears the Boyd is safe for now.

Nutter, in urging the Commission to grant the historic designation at its July 16th meeting, mentioned his own personal history with the Boyd (aka Sameric):

“The Boyd Theater, which opened in 1928, is a cherished institution in this City. It is the last remaining example of the major movie theaters that were once prominent in Center City and which were an important part of the economic, social, and cultural life of the City in the early to mid-twentieth century. For so many of us Philadelphians, the Boyd is an entertainment venue that holds many fond memories. In fact, the Boyd is the place where I first saw that great film Rollerball. I hope that the Historical Commission will give a thorough evaluation of this structure’s importance to our City, and I pledge to work with them to preserve this building.”

Ah, Rollerball, coming to the rescue of yet another historic movie house.

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3-1-1 can’t come soon enough

Full disclosure: I have had to do business with the city and it sucks.

I read with some interest this morning the piece in the Daily News about the Nutter administration’s recent dust-up over consultants for the city’s 3-1-1 system. To sum up, apparently some well-intentioned if misguided member of the managing director’s office decided to hire a company that has already been working on the call center to additional consulting work without putting the contract out to bid.

That, my friends, is a big no-no in Nutterland where the hyphenated adjective “no-bid” is apparently as welcome as toe fungus. Anyway, without getting into the “who knew what and when did they know it” aspect of the story, the mayor’s office has decided to put the contract out to bid.

Hopefully the appropriate consultant will be chosen soon so we can get this 3-1-1 thing up and running.

Alas, it may be too late for me, however.

Since my wife and I are leaving our (her) little cottage in Bella Vista slightly bigger digs in Passyunk Square, we’ve decided to rent the BV house in an attempt to cover its expenses until we eventually sell or die and leave it to our heirs (who are currently two orange cats). At the advice of our realtor, we’ve decided to do this above the table and secure all of the proper licenses and permits.

Without getting into too many details, that process involves getting a business tax account number from Revenue, a Business Privilege License ($250) from L&I, and a housing rental license from L&I, as well as some landlord cooperation agreement with PGW.

Step 1 required two different phone calls and included hold times of up to 17 minutes. After one such lengthy hold, during which I was subject to a MIDI version of Mozart on a loop, I was abruptly cut off. Having gotten advice on how to fill out the form – not quite as self-explanatory as they think it is – I was unable to fax it because the number didn’t work. The kind – though phlegmatically challenged – woman on the other end of the phone gave me another fax number which was nowhere to be found on any website or form. After faxing the form, we waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, 4 weeks later, we received a hand-written envelope from Revenue with a single sheet – a copy of the faxed application – on which was hand written our tax account number. Having been written on a shaded area of the fax before it was copied, we could barely make out the number.

Step 2 is currently underway after a separate phone call to L&I to chase down an invoice for the $250 fee for the Business Privilege License. To their credit, L&I’s hold time was much shorter and the invoice was faxed to me by the end of the business day on which I made the call.

My point in telling this story is that there may be a lot more work that needs to be done than just giving one 3-digit number by which to make these calls. Why are the memories of city fax machines full as was the explanation for the first inoperable fax number? Why are forms sent back with no cover letters or further explanations? Why are envelopes and important details like account numbers hand written?

3-1-1 may be a convenient way to report a pothole or a non-emergency crime (like bike theft… grrrrr), but without cleaning up and reorganizing the back end of process like license, account number and permit acquisition, putting up that 3-digit number is like painting the front door on the house but ignoring the leaky pipes and 40-year-old electrical system.

Meanwhile, other cities that already have 3-1-1 are having problems with their systems working so well that other public agencies and levels of government are taking a little too much advantage. Philly’s status as a city and county relieves some of those concerns but will Philly 3-1-1 hang up on people with concerns about SEPTA or the Parking Authority? Something to think about before we get there.

Oh… and don’t worry. I’ll keep you updated on how my dealings with the city go.

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Pittsburgh? Try Philadelphia.

A couple of days ago, Daily News blogger Will Bunch brought up an interesting point about the connection between gas prices and urban renewal.

In a post that pivots off of some grim news for the city of Pittsburgh (and aside from the Penguins, what news from Pittsburgh hasn’t been grim?), Bunch points out that places like the Steel City could be poised to take advantage of skyrocketing gas prices:

…virtually every newspaper in America is running an article about a flood of commuters flocking to trains or buses. But for the millions of Americans who work in the suburbs or live in one without trains or inadequate bus service, that’s not an option. Clearly, the best way to decrease energy use would be to get more people to live in so-called “livable cities” where stores and entertainment are walkable and where mass transit is also on the table. A place like Pittsburgh, for example.

So you have to wonder what’s the best way to get people out of their gas-guzzling cars and into livable cities like Pittsburgh as the available housing stock rises, and with undercrowded schools. Will the free market solve that problem at $5 gas (or $15 gas), or is their a role for government in encouraging re-population of these shrinking cities, without hurting the folks who live there now.

It’s also worth asking that question about the livable city I’m in right now – Philadelphia. The story of this region has been dictated over the past 6 decades by an unholy combination of (in no particular order): racism, space-ism, corruption, tax policy, and service delivery. I’ll explain each of these in turn in later posts, but you probably get the idea of what I’m talking about.

All of this has been facilitated by a national culture that has taken worship of the national myth of rugged individualism from our frontier days and translated into reverence for the autonomy of the automobile – an automobile that used to run on gas that was cheaper per gallon than a SEPTA token.

With gas prices accelerating at ludicrous speed, the former annoyance that used to be experienced when sitting in traffic to get from suburb to city or suburb to other suburb is now an all out economic hardship.

The big story of the next 8 years of the Nutter administration may not be any policy that the mayor himself crafts but how he can position the city to take advantage of the market forces that may finally reverse the unsustainable suburbanization trend that has been rotting out the core of the region while making the branches out in the suburbs too heavy to bear.

The revival of cities in the 1990s that saw population gains in many big cities and is often pointed to as Philadelphia’s last great missed opportunity, was more about folks with a choice choosing the art, culture and trendiness of urban living. The next wave could be about nothing less than the survival – economically and environmentally – of this nation.

Only seems appropriate for the birthplace of the nation to play a role in saving it.

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Filed under Population Growth, Regionalism

What is “Our City” going to look like 30 years from now?

That’s a question that often gets overlooked in the day-to-day activities of running a city government. In fact, responsibility for the shape and character of a city’s physical appearance is often left to a small group of planners who are sometimes both physically as well as philosophically separated from the rest of the government.

Elected officials, especially those facing electoral challenges or limited in the number of years they are able to serve, have little incentive and little time to think 30 years down the road. Their focus, often justifiably, is on tackling today’s problems and sometimes, if they have a little time, tomorrow’s.

The Nutter Administration, and the mayor himself, has so far talked the talk when it comes to having a long range views of city issues. Several of the mayor’s early appointments were to positions that deal directly with zoning, planning and development and acknowledged the relationship among the three. From Commerce Director/Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Andy Altman to his latest appointment of Mark Alan Hughes as Sustainability Director, Nutter has demonstrated a willingness to find folks with excellent reputations in these forward-thinking fields to fill the positions.

Now that such appointments have been made, the real question is what kinds of policies and actions can we expect? To one particularly vocal critic of the previous two administrations’ lack of commitment to planning, the actions so far have been laudable.

PlanPhilly, an excellent project dedicated to reporting and analysis of the latest news in the city’s planning and physical development, recently published an interview of Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron. Saffron, profiled in a recent Philadelphia Magazine piece, has been known to wield a powerful pen (or word processor) that is capable of taking down the mightiest and blightiest black eyes on the fabric of the city. Her opinions and her way of writing about such esoteric subjects as architecture and planning have brought the discussion of such things to a level on which everyone can participate and understand.

So when PlanPhilly asked for her evaluation of the current administration, it’s worth diving into:

PlanPhilly: So how is Nutter doing?

Saffron: “Nutter is more worldly and sophisticated. He sees the need for a better balance between making it easier for developers and looking out for the public good.

“I thought the thing with Stamper Square was a pretty good compromise, given the situation. Nutter hired Andy Altman, who said that you can’t give carte blanche rezoning. If you give rezoning, there should be a price.

“It’s so simple. Why hadn’t anybody thought of that before? Rezoning was done left and right under Street, and no one thought to ask for money for it. It’s a very good rule of thumb: If we give you a special deal, it comes with a price – a public price.

“Unfortunately, in the past, the price was campaign contributions.”

Saffron said it’s way too early to judge how well Nutter will do, though. “You can’t change the world in 100 days,” she said. “But he hired people who are clearly skilled and pro-planning. He hired a director of sustainability. Planning is a theme at a lot of events. You can’t change the world on day 1 or day 100, but you can set an agenda. You can hire people who believe in planning as a philosophy, and you can talk about that philosophy as a leader. You can change people’s expectations, and the expectations of developers and developers’ lawyers.

“He has done what a leader does. We have to wait to judge how well he does, but he’s set the boat on the right course.”

The fact that development has slowed just as a mayor who says planning is important does not concern Saffron. “We are entering a much slower time, but it’s good to catch your breath, to evaluate what you have done and get perspective on it.” Besides, she said, planning has a much greater effect in the future than in the present, so any planning now will be in place to guide the next boom, she said.

Unfortunately, she’s right. Ultimately, history will be the only judge of how Nutter is doing on planning and development right now. To consider that I’ll be in my 60s by the time we can make that assessment is a little depressing but also a cause for hope. Even if the casinos succeed and come into place on the waterfront, when you take a long range view, it gives you some degree of hope that today’s damage is not irreparable. If Nutter’s administration and folks like Altman can get behind such things as the community-developed vision for the Delaware Waterfront (for example), at least we can hope for tomorrow.

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Filed under planning, Population Growth

Building a better bridge to a more sustainable community

Ask anyone who is an expert on sustainability and they’ll probably tell you that the plans for a rebuilt South Street bridge violate just about every principle of sustainable infrastructure building that you can think of.

Rather than connecting University City and Center City with a walkable, bike-friendly span that would encourage people to visit both sides of the river without the use of their cars, the new South Street bridge is essentially a large exit/entrance ramp to the Schuylkill Expressway.

Bruce Schimmel, the City Paper’s Loose Canon, has been among those who have been beating the drum for a more sustainable Philadelphia and he took the opportunity at the announcement of Mayor Nutter’s choice for sustainability director to bring up the South Street bridge debacle.

Through most of the column, Schimmel points out the apparent frostiness that Nutter’s selection – the brilliant and thoughtful Mark Alan Hughes, former Daily News columnist and current Penn scholar – was met with by Schimmel’s affectionately named “greenistas.”

When he got a chance to ask Hughes about the bridge, Hughes, who spends a lot of time at Penn and lives, I believe, in or near Center City, was surprisingly quiet on the issue:

So I later asked Hughes about the current hot topic: the South Street Bridge. The city’s plans are blessed by UPenn, but in the opinion of many (including some maintaining their silence inside Penn), the plans make a mockery of sustainability.

Would Hughes weigh in on the South Street Bridge? His circuitous response would have made Alan Greenspan proud, the gist being, “Answer unclear, ask later.”

Hughes may have the mayor’s ear. Now it’s a matter of whether he’ll open his mouth. Let’s hope to hear from him soon. Because keeping quiet, now, would be very unfunny indeed.

Hughes is a Nutter confidant, having sign onto the mayor’s campaign at a time when few believed that Nutter had a chance of winning. It’ll be interesting to see how big a role Hughes plays – both publicly and behind closed doors. Will he just be in charge of penning op-eds for the dailies on the administration’s positions on environmental issues and smart development or will he be crafting the policies that will put Philadelphia in the vanguard of progressive, visionary and sustainable cities?

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Filed under planning, Population Growth, Sustainability