Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
Off-street parking would be required for some properties
A change to the city’s new zoning ordinance, one that would require developers near Temple University to provide parking for some residential and mixed-use properties, will be up for city Council approval on Thursday, Dec. 6.
“We’re requiring that above a certain level, that those developers provide off-street parking, to not continue the existing problem as it relates to availability of parking for local residents,” Council President Darrell Clarke, told reporters in remarks published Monday.
His office did not return Tribune phone calls to discuss the issue.
However, Clarke has long been trying to ease tensions between students at Temple and residents. A proposal last year to create a special services district around the university failed to move in Council, but Clarke has said he would revive the idea.
This proposal would link the number of units in any given development to a specific number of parking spots.
“With a significant increase in student housing – and yes, students do bring cars – we know that there are very difficult times for residents who live in that area with their inability to find parking,” Clarke said.
In the proposal before Council this week, he hopes to change the zoning code to require developers building in the area between Ninth Street, Girard Avenue, 20th Street and Lehigh Avenue.
This proposal has come under criticism from some developers but, according to Eva Goldstein, deputy director of the Planning Commission, since Clarke agreed to limit the scope of his proposal to the neighborhoods around Temple, planners’ concerns have receded.
“The bill was amended … the fact that it’s been restricted is, I think, a positive,” she said. “Limited to that section of North Central Philadelphia, there has been an awareness for a while that there are concerns about the impact of student housing in the community.”
Goldstein pointed out that the Planning Commission did not object to the bill after it was amended.
Larger concerns remain about other Council attempts to tinker with the new zoning code.
Council approved the code less than a year ago – in December 2011 – and it went into effect on Aug. 22.
The new code, which took five years to put together, was praised at its adoption because it was put together by a specially created Zoning Commission – removing the city’s ancient tradition of political meddling from the process.
While Clarke’s bill is not ideal, in Goldstein’s view, it is less objectionable than proposals by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and Councilman Brian O’Neill. Blackwell’s would change the zoning process laid out in the new code, which puts decisions before a community organization and provides a timeline for public input. O’Neill’s would change rules in density and parking in commercial corridors.
Both would change the code citywide.
That, Gladstein said, is the real cause for concern.
“There has been a general worry about trying to amend the new zoning code without having enough experience with what the concerns or problems might be,” she said.
Council restores millions to abuse shelter, parks and recreation
In a flurry of activity this week, Philadelphia City Council restored $7.1 million in funding to a number of budget items that included the city’s shelter for victims of domestic abuse, youth programs, parks and recreation programs.
A better than anticipated year-end fund balance for fiscal year 2012 gave Council the opportunity to play Santa Claus.
“I am pleased City Council approved much-needed funding for worthy programs that keep our streets and parks safe and protect vulnerable Philadelphians such as abuse victims and those born with disabilities,” said Council President Darrell Clarke. “My colleagues fought passionately for these causes during the toughest budget debate I’ve ever witnessed.”
Approximately $3 million will go toward the city’s only emergency shelter for victims of domestic abuse, creating 100 more beds.
"We are absolutely thrilled to hear of City Council’s leadership and commitment to expanding critical shelter services for victims of domestic violence,” said Cheryl Brubaker of Women Against Abuse, which operates the city’s only shelter. “We had to turn away 8,465 people last year who were in need of emergency shelter. The city can now ensure many more women and children who are in danger will be able to obtain immediate safety.”
Council also restored more than $2.6 million to the Department of Parks and Recreation, which will help support additional maintenance and facility workers as well as seasonal staff.
Anti-blight programs and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania received a total of $1.1 million in restored funding.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters has transformed countless lives in our city,” said Councilwoman At-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown and Councilman At-Large W. Wilson Goode, Jr. ”Our youth are our most precious asset. We are pleased to make an additional investment in their futures.”
In all, council agreed to additional spending of $37.1 million, including $30 million requested by the Nutter Administration. Council’s requested appropriations, in addition to those above, are as follows: solar trash compactors, $63,000; community life improvement programs, $600,000; Mural Arts Program, $200,000; special needs children through the Department of Human Services, $100,000.
Finally, Councilwoman Reynolds Brown introduced a proposal to raise the city’s hotel booking tax, boosting the rate from 1.2 to 1.5 percent. If approved, that would hike the total hotel occupancy tax to 15.5 percent.
According to Brown, the increase would raise room rates by 50 cents a night.
The new revenue – roughly $2 million – would be split between the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation and the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A bill hailed by some as a bulwark against gentrification and criticized by others as government overreach passed unanimously Thursday in City Council, paving the way for the city to seize 43 properties in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia.
“The wants of the developers who do not live in the Point Breeze community, are not invested in the community, have no interest in the working with those already in the community and whose sole purpose is to make money on a community, cannot, should not and will not, while I’m the councilman, trump the needs of those who live in the Point Breeze community,” said the bill’s sponsor, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who thanked his colleagues for their unanimous support.
Most of the properties slated for seizure under eminent domain are in a few blocks near Washington Avenue and, according to the bill, will be reserved for residential re-use as affordable housing, recreational or related uses.
Point Breeze — long a predominantly Black neighborhood — is a rapidly gentrifying area. Real estate values have been rising as Center City pushes south. Long-time residents are concerned about the effects of rising values which will force up property taxes. Johnson’s bill was seen by many residents as way to fight back.
It has caused a citywide furor creating a divide that pits developers against residents and is often also seen in racial terms, pitting white newer residents against Black long-term residents.
One developer, Ori Feibush, who, after a well-publicized battle with the city’s Redevelopment Authority, has become a symbol of the fight, said the bill’s passage was not a surprise but that it would come with unintended consequences.
“What this bill does is take away the opportunity for affordable housing in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a list of properties that will absolutely go to stifle private market development in that area. It will actually increase the prices of all the current properties for sale by stifling available supply.”
Johnson sponsored the bill in Council, but in a statement just before the vote pointed out that it was an administration proposal and was part of a larger re-vitalization plan that included redevelopment in Mantua, Nicetown and Point Breeze, which have been designated as blighted areas and are eligible for federal redevelopment funds.
He added that he has worked with developers to scale back the original bill, which called for the seizure of 93 properties — 80 of which were privately owned. There are 311 blighted or abandoned properties in Point Breeze.
In the bill approved Thursday, only 17 privately owned properties were included.
“Most of those 17 are blighted and have liens and are tax delinquent in excess of $165,000,” Johnson said.
He told council that his office had reached out to all of those property owners while tailoring the bill and “no one responded.”
According to Johnson, his opponents have mischaracterized the bill and that opposition comes from many areas of the city - but very little from the affected neighborhood.
“People are being told that properties that are being actively developed are being snatched by the city which is a lie - one that I suspect has brought many people out here in opposition of the bill today,” he said. “Although I won’t get involved in the petty politics and motivations behind the opposition to this bill, I do support quality development in the Point Breeze Community, in which I reside.”
Twelve people spoke before council voted on the measure, four in opposition. In an interesting detail, Johnson’s former opponent for his city council seat, realtor Barbara Capozzi sat in the audience with opponents of the bill.
The bad blood between the two groups was evident in council chambers with Council President Darrell Clarke occasionally having to shush the audience.
One long-time resident summed up her support simply.
“Developers are only here for the money,” said Patricia Wyait, a Point Breeze resident. “We live here. So, I personally am for the bill because it helps those of us who cannot afford the developers.”
Another man, a resident of West Philadelphia, opposed the move based on his experiences in his own neighborhood.
“They came in 16 years ago and they tore down these properties and they really didn’t fix no properties in our neighborhood,” said Marvin Robinson. “I’m sure it’s not going to be different in any other neighborhood.”
In a move that heralds the end of a federal takeover of the Philadelphia Housing Authority nearly two years ago, Mayor Michael Nutter has submitted the names of nine prospective members of a newly reconstituted board for City Council’s approval.
Hopes are a new board can assume control by March.
“It’s a step forward in terms of accountability,” said Council President Darrell Clarke. “Now the governing body of the City of the Philadelphia, ultimately, will have the responsibility of the placement of board members. So, the buck stops with us.”
Clarke submitted the nine names to his colleagues on Council Thursday morning.
They were: Joan Markman, the city of Philadelphia’s chief integrity officer; Lynette Brown-Sow, vice president of marketing and communications for the Community College of Philadelphia; Nelson Diaz, a former city solicitor, Common Pleas Court judge and general counsel for HUD; Herbert Wetzel, former executive director of the Redevelopment Authority and now a housing expert for City Council; the Rev. Leslie Callahan, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in North Philadelphia; Rev. Bonnie Camarda, director of partnerships for the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia; Shellie Jackson, a PHA tenant who lives at the Hill Creek Apartments in Northeast Philadelphia; Vernell Tate, also a PHA resident and president of the tenant council at the Spring Garden Apartments and Kenneth A. Murphy, a partner at the law firm of Drinker Biddle.
Clarke expects confirmation by council’s Dec. 13 meeting, the last session of this year.
“We hope this locally controlled board will be able to work with other housing and housing related agencies in the city to create for the first time a truly consolidated plan and approach for affordable housing,” said Mark McDonald, Nutter’s spokesman.
The previous five-member board was forced out in early 2011 after a string of scandals rocked the housing authority. It was composed of five members – two chosen by the mayor, two by the city controller and one resident. That board was replaced by a single federally appointed commissioner, chosen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
According to Clarke, seven of the new board members will be chosen by the mayor and confirmed by council. The remaining two will be chosen in elections by PHA residents.
Jackson and Tate were nominated this week as interim resident representatives. Clarke said. They will serve until elections can be set up to choose replacements.
“The mayor and the Council President Clarke have taken a critically important step in the process of returning the authority to local control after nearly two years in receivership,” said Housing Commissioner Estelle Richman and Interim Executive Director Kelvin A. Jeremiah, in a joint statement. “The choice of these members demonstrates that PHA will operate with the highest ethical standards in the years to come, thus ensuring that the ethical violations of the past do not recur.”
HUD officials made more local accountability one of the conditions of a return to local control.
The authority has been in turmoil since the summer of 2010 after former director Carl Greene was fired amid allegations of financial mismanagement and sexual harassment. Among the allegations were that Greene misled the board as to the agency’s spending.
Federal officials are still in the process of determining how much in federal funding PHA should return to the federal government.
Since Greene’s departure, another director, Michael Kelly, has also come and gone, tainted by scandal. Jeremiah replaced him.
Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers was feeling the heat this week as City Council’s Committee on Labor and Civil Service took him to task for a new plan to deploy firefighters in five-year rotations — a plan loudly opposed by the union.
“You will hear from many people today about why we shouldn’t do this,” said Ayers in his testimony. “I remind you that there are many more you won’t hear from today, but I certainly hear from them and they have been looking for this opportunity.”
Several members of Council — all of whom expressed their displeasure with the new plan from Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration — grilled Ayers for well over an hour Tuesday morning.
Administration officials announced the plan on Nov. 1 and it immediately caused an outcry from firefighters. Scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, it re-deploys 293 senior firefighters — those with 10 or more years of service — putting them into a five-year rotation, forcing them to work at firehouses across the city rather than the ones where they’ve spent the majority of their careers.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Bill Gault, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 22, told reporters at recent press conference. He did not testify Tuesday.
Gault has called the plan “vindictive” and said it would lead to unnecessary deaths. “Firefighting is a team game. Don’t break up the team. It’s a recipe for disaster. People will die. Fireman will die.”
A couple hundred firefighters packed the chamber Tuesday, punctuating the proceedings with shouted commentary and occasionally interrupting Ayers’ testimony. The commissioner refused to speak over the commotion, sitting stony faced until committee Chair Jim Kenney either waited out the noise, or brought the crowd back to order.
But the fiercest opposition came from members of the committee, who pressed Ayers relentlessly about the re-deployment plan.
“None of this makes any sense,” Kenney told Ayers.
Each member of council who spoke disapproved of the plan – largely echoing union objections. One also questioned the administration’s motives in implementing the re-deployment plan. Some have suggested that the plan is part of an administration effort to weaken the union.
“It’s being put into place to break that down,” said Councilman Mark Squilla.
Department commanders contend the plan is needed to increase the experience of firefighters by exposing them to a variety of settings and neighborhoods. Ayers acknowledged the union’s objections, but accused members of fear mongering to get their way.
“Change brings angst, but sometimes people need to know what to let go of,” he said. “The union has tried to scare the city of Philadelphia, our residents, into thinking that they are less safe.”
Local 22 has been feuding with the Nutter administration since 2008.
Twice an arbitrator has granted firefighters a contract, and twice the administration has appealed it. Last week a Common Pleas Court threw out the latest appeal by the administration, but insiders suggest that another appeal is likely.
Kenney blasted the mayor for the standoff over a contract.
“This is not necessarily directed at you,” Kenney said to Ayers. “But, some of the things people do in frustration – when over a five year period they are treated totally disrespectfully in every aspect of the employer/employee relationship. When what we have in this state is binding arbitration for uniformed employees who cannot strike and it,s appealed, and appealed, and appealed and appealed and going to probably be appealed again. You expect people to want to come to work in a cheerful manner when they’re treated so disrespectfully?”
He noted that contract negotiations with police have not been the same.
“This has been a tooth pull from the beginning,” Kenney said.
Ultimately, Council has little real authority in the matter, though members’ opposition to the plan does ratchet up the political pressure on the mayor.