Posts by Author: Jared Brey

Chattanooga Aims for Lean Government With ‘Peak Academy’

Chattanooga Peak Academy, modeled on a similar program in Denver, has already saved $85,000, officials say. The program aims to teach city workers "lean" techniques, popular in the corporate world. Here, Maura Sullivan, Chattanooga's Chief Operating Officer, offers insights. (Credit: City of Chattanooga)

It was November of 2016 when Tim Moreland traveled to Denver for a week-long training in the city’s “Peak Academy,” a program that’s meant to empower city employees to create and implement their own improvements to the way their government works. Moreland, the director of performance management and open data for the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was there as both a participant and observer. The experience convinced him that the program could work in Chattanooga, too. So three months later, with no budget and no staff, Moreland helped Chattanooga launch a Peak Academy of its own.

In the ten months since then, more than 100 city employees have gone through the training program. They’ve come up with dozens of micro-innovations to make government work more efficiently, from cutting down on the use of paper and ink to experimenting with new recruiting practices to help diversify the city’s police force. Because it’s run by volunteers who work on the program in addition to their “regular” jobs, Peak Academy doesn’t cost the city anything. In fact, it’s actually begun to generate a small amount of revenue, as outside organizations, including the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and the Tennessee Valley Authority, have paid the city to send their own employees to the program.

In concept, Peak Academy is aligned with ideas of “lean” processing and continuous improvement that are popular in the corporate world. The goal, says Michael Baskin, chief policy officer for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, is to give city workers the tools they need to address issues that they’ve identified in their daily work. Instead of setting specific goals and expecting specific outcomes, the program is meant to help employees design and implement better practices on their own.

“Peak Academy is one strategy that my administration has used to help our staff realize their full potential as public servants,” said Berke, in a statement emailed to Next City. “Through their work in Peak, we can discover new efficiencies and entirely new approaches to existing challenges, both big and small. The return for the citizens of Chattanooga is more and better services at lower cost, which allows us to invest more resources in other ways.”

The Peak Academy has two levels: “Green belt,” which involves less than a day of training, and “black belt,” which lasts for a week. Baskin says that in the black belt trainings, the first two days are spent helping employees identify and understand problems. Workers often come in wanting to jump straight to solutions, Baskin says, but the structure of the training encourages them to think first about “what the customer wants.” They start talking about solutions on the third day. At the end of the week, trainees are expected to present to their managers and peers three improvements that they plan to make—again with no new budget, staff, or technology.

“We work with people who want to work with us,” says Moreland. “It’s done purposefully so we get people who are excited and engaged.”

Moreland says that Peak Academy participants have so far identified 206 potential innovations and carried out 22 of them. They’ve already saved the city $85,000, he says. One employee had been routinely printing out eleven copies of major government contracts, all for internal use in various departments. Most of the time the full contracts weren’t needed, she realized, so she started only printing them out on request. After a library worker and a coordinator of the police force’s gang unit went through Peak Academy together, they decided to create a collaborative reading club between the two departments, with the aim of increasing empathy among the police force.

“It gives people a common language that allows them to create change together,” says Baskin.

Another employee simply reoriented her desk space so that she was as easily accessible to members of the public as she was to her co-workers. If everyone in city government tried to make small improvements in their work systems every day, Baskin says, the cumulative effect would be powerful. In many instances, employees are finding ways to cut out superfluous tasks that aren’t key to their actual jobs.

In Denver, Peak Academy innovations have allowed the city to reduce its average recruitment and hiring time by 20 days, from a baseline of 84 days. Denver’s program inspired a similar academy in San Diego, called OpEx, for “operational excellence.” San Diego’s performance and analytics department studied employees’ processes and found ways to replace street lights more quickly and shorten the time it takes to answer 911 calls, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

According to Baskin, the academy has charged non-city employees between $500 and $2,000 to participate in the weeklong training sessions. It’s been so successful that one county government in bordering Georgia has come knocking, and is thinking about creating a Peak Academy of its own, Baskin says. Money aside, Baskin says, the program is helping city employees do their work in ways that make more sense to them, and that’s good for morale.

“Sure there’s some hard dollar savings,” Baskin says, “but it’s really about freeing someone up.”


Cities That Went Big on Infrastructure Investments in 2017

A woman using a BCycle bikeshare bike rides past the Alamo in San Antonio. Voters there approved the largest bond measure in the city's history, with streets, bridges, sidewalks and bike lanes receiving $445 million. (Photo by Derekmarc on Wikimedia Commons)

Despite President Donald Trump’s promises to “fix our inner cities” and invest in urban infrastructure, American cities have spent much of the first year of his administration worrying about how his policies might contribute instead to their unmaking.

Would proposed cuts to HUD and the Community Development Block Grant program send the affordable housing crisis into overdrive? Would sanctuary cities be hit with punishing cuts to federal funding? Would the elimination of the national Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit leave landmark buildings to languish?

The Republican-engineered tax overhaul signed by Trump just before Christmas is expected to make life more difficult in big cities, but so far, many of the gravest threats to specific urban development programs have failed to materialize. And in many places, voters turned out to support local bond initiatives that could help cities invest in streetscape improvements, transit infrastructure, affordable housing, bike lanes, and upgrades to parks and open spaces. The wave of support for these initiatives signaled that city dwellers see the value in making long-term improvements to urban infrastructure, and are willing to invest in it.


In May, San Antonio voters approved the biggest bond package in the city’s history. The $850 million package was split into six separate ballot questions, representing investments in streets, bridges, and sidewalks; drainage and flood control; parks and recreation centers; libraries and cultural facilities; public safety facilities; and “neighborhood improvements.” Each question was approved by at least two thirds of voters.

San Antonio has been selling bonds on a five year cycle, with a $550 million issue in 2007 and $596 million in 2012. Of the six investment categories targeted in the 2017 bond issue, streets, bridges, and sidewalks will get the most money by far, with $445 million. The funding covers 64 projects, from street repavings to pedestrian improvements to bike lanes.

Also included in the bond issue is a $20 million investment in affordable housing. The “neighborhood improvements” bonds will allow the city to acquire and clear property in certain neighborhoods and sell it to private developers, who will be required to include some reduced-rate housing as part of their projects. The city is facing an unmet demand for at least 150,000 affordable housing units, according to the San Antonio Express-News.


Voters in fast-growing Denver showed up for a ballot measure in November that would generate $937 million for infrastructure investments. Nearly half of the investment will be set aside for transportation and mobility projects, which also got the most support at the polls. Those projects include 33 miles of new sidewalks and $18 million for citywide bike infrastructure, including new protected bike lanes. The bond sale will also fund a renovation of the Denver Central Library and improvements to 47 parks, according to the Denver Post.


In Dallas, voters approved 10 ballot questions that together represent a $1.05 billion infrastructure investment. More than half the package is dedicated to 1,027 projects that will bring improvements to city streets, including repavings, bridge repairs, new sidewalks, and street lighting. Around $30 million is dedicated for “Complete Streets” makeovers. The city’s network of bike lanes and trails will also be bolstered by the bond issue, along with $50 million from other sources, according to a local NBC affiliate.

The portion of the bond effort dedicated to parks and trails grew after the city convened a citizens task force to sort through individual project proposals, as Next City reported in July. The projects were based on a “needs inventory” that the city maintains online. The package also includes $20 million set aside for “transitional and permanent supportive housing to target chronic homelessness, rapid rehousing for the elderly, disabled and families with children and day centers for seamless wrap-around services.”


In September, Oklahoma City voters approved 13 separate bond propositions representing a $967 million investment over the next ten years. The program, known as Better Streets, Safer City, also includes a permanent quarter-cent sales tax increase aimed at public-safety investments and the temporary extension of a one-cent sales tax to raise $240 million for street improvements over 27 months.

The investments—and the tax measures—were supported by Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican who is reportedly planning to run for Oklahoma governor in 2018. Cornett, who is in his fourth term, was also mayor the last time the city carried out a major bond initiative, with a package worth $835 million approved by voters in 2007.


Earlier this year, a community survey of Raleigh, North Carolina, residents found that while nearly everyone thinks the city is a good place to live, almost half of respondents said that traffic flow on area roads was poor or below average. Then in October, voters approved transportation bond package worth more than $200 million. The investment, which includes road repaving and restriping projects, pedestrian improvements, and a project meant to create safer pathways for kids walking and biking to school, was supported by the Chamber of Commerce and a local planning advocacy group.

It passed despite opposition from the Wake County Republican Party and the county Taxpayers Association. The head of the Taxpayers Association announced the group’s outright opposition to bike lanes to the Raleigh News & Observer after the vote, calling them “suicide lanes.” The measure was approved by voters by a ratio of 72-28.


Philadelphia Hopes to Harmonize Historic Preservation

Even without the bright orange demolition notice pasted onto its double doors, Christian Street Baptist Church wouldn’t be the most striking building in South Philadelphia.

There’s more high drama in the arched doors and windows of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, one block east. There’s deeper history behind the stone walls of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, the first Italian national parish in the United States and the starting point for the procession of the saints during the Italian Market Festival every May. For a total vision of sacred architecture, Christian Street Baptist doesn’t compete with the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, half a mile to the southwest.

Still, the church, originally built as a Protestant Episcopal mission for Italian immigrants, has been a landmark in the Bella Vista neighborhood since the 1890s. African-American Baptist congregations mainly have been the occupants since the early part of the 20th century. An open belfry tops the eastern tower of its asymmetrical facade. The doorway is capped by a stained-glass transom, surrounded by ornamental terracotta. The brickwork is more intricate on the church than on the similarly scaled rowhouses that surround it on both sides. There’s nothing else exactly like it in the entire city, and if it’s torn down, there will never be anything like it again.

“You could just look at it from an architectural perspective and say that it is a unique building — the scale of it, the style of it,” says Oscar Beisert, a professional architectural historian who’s active in local preservation advocacy. He frequently engages the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which ultimately decides which buildings get placed on the city’s Register of Historic Places, by filing nominations. “You could make a case for the architecture. But I think what’s particularly special about this building is that it relates to the history of immigrant populations in Philadelphia. The Protestant Episcopal Church was the most fashionable religion in 19th-century America, and so because of that, they had a lot of money, and they started a lot of these mission congregations to not only try to convert people, but to provide social services that the government didn’t provide at the time.”

Today, Bella Vista, south of Center City, is among the most competitive real estate markets in Philadelphia. Newcomers are mostly white; longstanding black communities have dwindled. The current congregation at Christian Street Baptist Church has contracted as well — it’s now only about a dozen strong — and has struggled to maintain the property. This year, the congregation decided to sell the church, which has structural issues and a mold problem; they were also eyeing the prospect of securing cash to move to another facility.

In a matter of hours, a Philadelphia developer who planned to tear down the church and build townhomes offered just below the asking price of around $1.5 million, and the congregation accepted. Then Beisert stepped in. He nominated the church for historic protection at the city level.

Christian Street Baptist Church may be unique, but its dilemma is not. In a similar case in 2015, Beisert and other preservationists stepped in to designate First African Baptist Church, the oldest of its kind in Pennsylvania, six blocks west of Christian Street Baptist, after the pastor sought to sell it to a developer who proposed demolition. In that case, the demolition was opposed by a group of congregants as well, and while the church was eventually sold, it was also listed on the historic register, and is being repurposed as a daycare center and condominiums. A Pew report released in October concluded that many of Philadelphia’s historic religious properties are facing maintenance problems, and that more and more congregations will face tough choices about what to do with their properties as time goes by.

“It really comes down to a question,” says Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which supported the nomination of Christian Street Baptist Church. “Does a congregation, like any other property owner, have the right to extract full value from their property? Or does the community have the right to retain these ornaments to the cityscape in some way? Is it a desired goal of city government to facilitate the transitioning of religious properties away from sacred use? We would argue that it is. Churches are one of the most important parts of the built environment in terms of imparting character and a sense of permanence to a neighborhood, and religious properties in particular should receive special consideration in terms of incentives and regulations to encourage their preservation and adaptive reuse.”

It’s not just churches that are under threat. The rejuvenation of Philadelphia’s real estate market has been accompanied by the destruction of iconic theaters, beloved diners, public schools, landmark hospitals and hundreds of run-of-the-mill rowhomes that, taken together, make up the essential urban fabric of the city.

Last-minute applications filed for preservation as a wrecking ball swings toward a building, however, aren’t a sustainable long-term plan. Neither are methods that end up pitting advocates like Beisert against a church congregation struggling to maintain a property. So Philadelphia is now trying to move past the perceived crisis of demolition. With an increase in the Historical Commission’s budget and the appointment, in the spring, of a Historic Preservation Task Force, the city is hoping to develop a more proactive approach to preservation. Over the course of the next year, the task force will be developing recommendations for how to balance development and preservation in a city that for decades has been desperate for development of any kind. And it’s doing all of this with an eye on making preservation a more inclusive practice, and chipping away at the notion that preservation is the sole province of elite professionals working purely in service of aesthetics and buildings designed by prominent architects.

A Wake-Up Call for Historic Preservation

If there was one case that focused the city’s attention on its vulnerable historic architecture, it was the proposal last year to demolish six buildings on Jewelers’ Row, a block of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, six blocks east of City Hall, that make up the oldest diamond district in the United States.

Residential developer Toll Brothers took the city by surprise when it pulled a permit to build a 16-story housing complex on the small-scale row. As two leading members of the local Design Advocacy Group wrote in an op-ed, virtually everyone had assumed that the iconic district was already protected. But not only were the buildings not listed on the historic register, they were also sitting in the most permissive commercial zoning category in the whole city and — from a developer’s point of view — on an underbuilt stretch of high-value real estate. Toll Brothers’ proposal sharpened advocates’ sense that the city’s approach to preservation was failing.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who had talked up his commitment to preservation during his campaign but hadn’t made much concrete progress on the issue six months into his term, was forced to react. Acknowledging that Toll had a legal right to demolish the buildings, he called on the developers to incorporate the facades into whatever they ended up building. Last December, when Toll’s proposal grew to 29 stories and still included no clear commitment to preserving any of the buildings, Kenney said the plan was “deeply disturbing.” Four months later, he announced the appointment of the Historic Preservation Task Force.

Jewelers' Row is a block of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, six blocks east of City Hall in Philadelphia. It's the oldest diamond district in the United States.

Harris Steinberg, director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, is chair of the new task force. He says that they want to align all the municipal agencies that deal with land use behind a common vision that includes both preservation and development.

In its early meetings, the group has engaged in some wide-angle soul searching about the purposes of historic preservation and the strengths and weaknesses of Philadelphia’s regulations. At one session, commissioners openly wordsmithed a vision statement:

Philadelphia in 2030 has preserved the unique identity of its historic buildings, blocks and neighborhoods while embracing new investment.

Philadelphians are active protectors of their neighborhood history and cultural identity. In partnership with foundations, developers, civic leaders and government, residents identified the buildings, sites and places that are important to protect for future generations in order to tell the story of Philadelphia and its people.

The city uses regulations and incentives to protect these important places that reflects the values of its residents and results in the extraordinary layering of history that makes Philadelphia unique.

It’s an aspirational vision, and one that will require negotiating many competing interests. Even setting aside longtime conflict between preservation and development, historic preservation itself is undergoing a transformational redefinition.

For a long time, historic preservation was seen primarily as an important end in itself, a recognition that iconic works of architecture are keys to understanding the past. But in recent years, advocates have sought to defend preservation as a practice that serves a broader array of public interests. In 2010, Econsult released a report showing that over 10 years, preservation projects in Pennsylvania had accounted for more than $1 billion of investment, 9,800 jobs, and $24 million in state tax revenue. In the same period, preservation work had generated $660 million in investment, 2,800 jobs, and $6.6 million in tax revenue in Philadelphia alone, the report concluded.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation created an “Atlas of ReUrbanism” showing that areas with older and smaller buildings tend to have more minority- and women-owned small businesses, more affordable homes and more jobs generally. It promotes the idea that preservation serves sustainability goals, with the maxim that “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

Whose Task Force? Whose Preservation?

The values that the 33-member Historic Preservation Task Force end up promoting could have profound impacts on which preservation projects are prioritized in the city and, in turn, the very shape of the built environment in neighborhoods across the city.

In developing their recommendations — and making the case for them — members will likely have difficult conversations. This is the main defense the task force has offered for the decision to do the work of its four subcommittees away from the public eye. There’s also a plan to hold open meetings in neighborhoods around the city to solicit public input.

“So far it’s been a very collegial process and the subcommittees have organized and started to work diligently from the get-go,” says Steinberg. “It all seems to be working right now without any tension that is forcing me into having to adjudicate one way or the other. Will that be likely nine months from now? I’m hoping. But it will get more difficult, more challenging, as we start to come up with: What is the story we’re telling? What are the recommendations we’re making?”

The task force includes not only preservationists, historians and architects, but also archeologists, developers, attorneys, economists, planners and community representatives. In a draft of a report on the state of preservation in Philadelphia (expected to be finalized in January), the task force acknowledged that the “constituency for historic preservation is geographically but not demographically diverse.” In its effort to broaden that constituency, the task force hopes to make recommendations for how the Historical Commission can improve education and outreach — an official plank of the Commission’s mission that it has rarely pursued.

But with respect to diversity, the task force itself stumbled out of the gate. In a July column, local journalist and radio host Charles D. Ellison noted that 24 of the 29 original members of the task force were white. “The theme of the Task Force, given its very specialized subject matter, is to let the architects, preservationists and real estate developers handle it,” Ellison wrote. How could the group broaden the definition of preservation if it was composed of the usual suspects?

Ellison wasn’t the only one who noted the lack of diversity, and at its second meeting, the task force responded by adding several people of color, some of whom were listed as “community representatives.” One of the new additions, Trapeta Mayson, the executive director of Historic Germantown, says she initially assumed that the invitation was simply a reaction to the criticism, but she was excited to represent Germantown and add her voice to the discussion.

“I wanted to know: Do you want real input or was this sort of like an exercise?” Mayson says. “And so we had that conversation.”

Mayson says her conversation with Steinberg made her believe her perspective and experience would be valued on the task force. She was named a co-chair of the education and outreach committee, and she says she has faith that the task force will develop good recommendations.

But Faye Anderson, a preservation activist and director of All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, says she feels like she was “uninvited” from the task force. Over the summer, she says, task force staff reached out to her to see if she would be interested in joining. She says she took a few days to make sure she’d be able to attend the meetings, and then said she would join. To this day, she says she has not heard back from them.

“They never expected me to say, ‘Yes,’” Anderson says. “I don’t think they wanted me, they just wanted to say they asked.”

In Anderson’s opinion, the task force is just a delay tactic. If the city really wanted to address its preservation issues, she believes, it could do so simply, by making a survey of historic resources and committing more resources to protecting them; in the short term, she thinks Philadelphia needs a citywide survey and a demolition moratorium. The problem is that the city doesn’t have the political will to do so, she says. And she’s critical of the task force for trying to stay above the fray.

“We’re in the middle of a demolition crisis and [the task force] says nothing,” Anderson says. “What is it waiting for? Whenever the report comes out, what will be left?”

Steinberg has said that the task force’s job is “not to advocate.” But it has noted that preservation advocacy suffers from the belief that it is “elitist and focused on the protection of wealthy people’s homes and famous architects’ buildings,” as the draft report says, citing a presentation from the Preservation Alliance. That perception may be beginning to fracture around the country, as diverse communities have begun to take up the cause in more high-profile ways. But it’s still firmly rooted.

“For the most part, preservation up until now has been seen by many as an elitist, educated, largely Caucasian profession,” Steinberg says. “Whether that’s true or not or whether it’s valid or not doesn’t matter. I think that’s the perception. The hope is that with this process we can begin to change that, and that’s all part of this question about the broader definition of preservation.”

Anderson says that the presence of lawyers, developers and consultants who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo represents a built-in conflict of interest, one that will keep the effort from producing any meaningful outcomes.

Mayson says that participating in the task force has already informed her understanding of preservation.

“I find it really fascinating, because coming from a historic organization, often the thought is that preservationists are preservationists and developers are developers, and I’m finding that that’s not really the case,” Mayson says. “There are some very thoughtful developers who care about preserving communities.”

From Demolition to Development

“Demolition in general, whether it’s a beautiful church or a crappy, one-story, brutalist building — it’s a conversation,” says Ori Feibush, the Philadelphia developer who’s planning to buy Christian Street Baptist Church. “Demolition has inherent risks. It’s costly. It always pisses off neighbors, regardless of what the structure is. And then if you add something that people wish stayed up, it only adds to that stress and that consternation.”

Oscar Beisert’s push to have the church designated as a historic building threatened the sale because, for Feibush, adaptive reuse is a nonstarter. The layout is awkward, the windows don’t work for apartments, the rear facade is stuccoed over, the near-complete lot occupancy would make it difficult to brace the building to preserve the facade. The only part worth $1.5 million is the land underneath the church, he says. It would be worth a third as much if the building had to stay standing.

Feibush acknowledges the church’s argument that designating the building will deprive the congregation of the money they need to continue their ministry. At a Historical Commission designation committee meeting in October, Tahnee Hall, the treasurer of Christian Street Baptist Church, said that the congregation wouldn’t leave the building if they could avoid it, but that the bricks and mortar of the property were not the priority. The history of the church would be carried with the congregation and shared with their children, whatever happened to the building itself.

Some advocates think there could be a solution that would serve everyone.

“We would have liked to help the congregation explore alternatives to a hasty sale and demolition, but the congregation did not seem to be interested,” says Rachel Hildebrandt, a senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit headquartered in Philadelphia that sees such congregations as vital anchor institutions. She adds that Feibush is setting the narrative about the building’s value, but the only way to find out what the property could fetch with the existing buildings is to put it back on the market with that condition.

“There are developers in Philadelphia, believe it or not, who are interested in redeveloping historic property,” Hildebrandt says.

Christian Street Baptist Church has been a landmark in Philadelphia's Bella Vista neighborhood since the 1890s.

Current regulations only apply to a small fraction of the buildings in the city. Just 2.2 percent of the city’s buildings are designated historic, according to the task force’s research, as opposed to an average of 4.3 percent in 50 cities in the country. Given the amount of eligible buildings that aren’t protected, it’s not surprising that preservationists have been forced to step in at the last minute to prevent demolitions, according to the task force.

In some cases, even assets that are widely acknowledged as historic go unprotected for years at a time. The Philadelphia Historical Commission has nominations for several historic districts that have been sitting on the shelf that it is only now hoping to move forward on after getting funding for two additional staff members in Mayor Kenney’s most recent budget. Christian Street Baptist Church itself was listed as a prominent landmark worthy of consideration for protection in a 2015 city plan.

But even if it had been designated then — even if it were to be designated now — that wouldn’t really resolve the dilemma, Feibush says. It’s one thing to legally prevent a historic building from being demolished. It’s another thing entirely to facilitate a viable reuse for the building’s future.

“There needs to be, for lack of a better word, basically a grant program available,” he says. “There has to be compensation. You have to level the playing field, because the easy argument is always that a creative developer can find a way. And I agree with you. But the problem is, that creative developer is always going to be in a position where he’s offering less money, or she’s offering less money, than the developer ready to tear it down.”

Preservation advocates readily concede the point. Beisert notes the incentive of the city’s 10-year tax abatement for renovation and new construction. The city should consider incentive programs, such as extending the abatement for historic buildings that are more challenging to restore or re-use or other community-serving institutions, to make the buildings more enticing to a wider range of developers, he suggests.

“If there’s going to be a tax abatement that leads to investment, why not at least have some component that is geared toward things that have architectural value?” Beisert says. “And then it would help offset some of these costs.”

For other ideas, the city could look to the work of a previous preservation task force from a dozen years ago. One suggestion from that group’s report, which was not pursued, was that the city could use tax increment financing, which lets owners keep some of the increased taxes they would otherwise pay on improved properties, to support preservation work in historic districts.

At the national level, the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, started in 1976, allows developers to offset the cost of rehabilitation projects by up to 20 percent for properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been used for more than 40,000 projects nationwide, leveraging more than $84 billion in private investment, according to the National Park Service. But the tax credit is only available for nationally recognized buildings.

Besides, as a Republican-controlled Congress debated a new tax plan this fall, the federal historic tax credit was in jeopardy. Initial bills in both the House and Senate completely eliminated the tax credit, though it was saved in the end. As the threat loomed, advocates noted that eliminating the program could be devastating not just to historic rehab projects but to economic development in cities more generally.

“There are times where money is just the answer,” says Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for Philadelphia’s Department of Planning and Development, which includes the Historical Commission. “Taking money away — you can’t overcome that. Taking money away from a program that pays for itself and generates neighborhood revitalization, generates jobs, is just silly.”

As the task force highlighted in its draft report on preservation in Philadelphia, the city currently has no financial incentives designed to encourage the maintenance or restoration of historic properties. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has a representative on Philly’s task force, is trying to help. In June, the National Trust named the historic neighborhoods of Philadelphia a “national treasure,” as it has done for parts of Miami, Louisville and Detroit. And as part of its work with the task force, the National Trust is researching incentives that other cities and states have used to support preservation, and will be offering some case studies for the city to consider.

“In many ways, it’s about values,” Steinberg says. “What’s important to us? How do we direct public monies to effectuate the kind of projects or change we’re looking for? It would not surprise me if the incentives subcommittee came up with creative and interesting new ways to incentivize this balance that we’re talking about.”

Meanwhile, Feibush maintains that he’ll sign the contract on Christian Street Baptist Church over, at cost, to any developer who has a viable plan to adaptively reuse the church. Paul Steinke says he has found a few developers and investors who might be interested.

Finding the True Value of Historic Preservation

The task force was planning to have its white paper on the state of preservation in Philly finalized by December. But members had so much feedback on the draft that the final report isn’t expected to be complete until later in January. The task force will then spend six months developing recommendations for how the city can update its regulations, or create incentives, for how to complete a survey of historic properties and improve education about historic properties. Steinberg says the goal is to create recommendations that are actionable, rather than lofty.

The success of its work will rest largely on whether it’s able to expand the scope of preservation in Philadelphia, to not only bring it into harmony with a broader vision of the city’s development, but to make questions of preservation more immediate to more people.

“Our preservation laws were designed originally to encompass the broad range of history and the broad range of cultural heritage that every American values,” says Will Cook, associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “When these laws were being applied in the very beginning, there tended to be an emphasis to focus on significant architectural heritage of national leaders of the colonial period. So because of that emphasis, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of untold history that has not become known, based on the National Register of Historic Places, and that’s been changing over time.”

Mayson works as a poet and artist as well as the director of Historic Germantown, and says she’s spent a lot of time talking with Germantown residents and recording their stories. More people than not have a general interest in preserving old buildings, she says, but getting people to invest in preservation requires presenting historic assets as a foundation for the present and the future more than as relics of the past.

“If you’re able to do the work to make it relevant, and show people how they can find themselves in the history of that building or of that community culture,” she says, “then you don’t have to sell them on anything else.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.


When State Law Limits Affordable Housing Policy

Milwaukee has added over a thousand apartments in 2017 with about 1,500 more under construction. An additional 1,700 are planned for next year. With all that development, city leaders attempted to ensure that lower-income renters weren't being left out. (Photo by Mrlaugh on Flickr)

Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman has watched the real estate market in the greater downtown areas of his district bounce back since the Great Recession that began a decade ago. But in the poorer central city neighborhoods that he also represents, Bauman says, property values have continued to drop, and virtually nothing is built without some type of government subsidy or grant.

So in November, Bauman authored a bill that would establish a mandatory inclusionary housing policy downtown. Buildings with 20 or more apartments would have to keep 10 percent of units set aside for tenants earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. The goal was to let low-income Milwaukeeans get in on some of the development benefits. Almost a third of Milwaukee renters spend half or more of their income on rent; that’s significantly higher than the national average, according to Census figures.

“We looked at this disparity of what’s going on in the central city of Milwaukee versus what’s going in the greater downtown area,” Bauman says. “And we wanted to at least open up some opportunities for … people who are earning a wage but not a high wage.”

Bauman’s proposal didn’t get very far. Just a few days after the legislation was introduced, the office of the city attorney sent a letter saying that the proposal ran afoul of a Wisconsin state law that prevents cities from establishing rent control programs, as Urban Milwaukee reported. A Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision from 2006 had held that a similar proposal in the city of Madison was illegal and unenforceable under the state statute, the attorney said. At the same time, the part of Bauman’s legislation that would require affordable units in projects that receive public financing was likely OK, the attorney said, because it would amount to a condition on an agreement between the city and a developer, rather than a requirement for obtaining a zoning permit. (Madison operated with a modified version of the legislation that didn’t apply to rental housing for a few years, but the policy expired under a sunset provision in 2009.)

“The court decision seemed pretty on point,” Bauman says. “So we modified our proposal.”

The version of the bill that’s now making its way through the Common Council of Milwaukee would only apply to publicly financed projects. It could still help reduce housing disparities, Bauman says, but not nearly as much.

More and more cities around the U.S. have begun to flirt with inclusionary zoning policies as housing in rebounding urban neighborhoods has gotten more expensive. There’s still no broad consensus around the degree to which the policies work. Research suggests that they aren’t a great solution for housing the lowest-income tenants, and many people, including some in Milwaukee, argue that the policies can suppress residential development overall. A mandatory inclusionary zoning bill was introduced in Philadelphia over the summer, but the proposal has generated a lot of disagreement, and is still being negotiated.

Meanwhile, cities are working under a “patchwork” of state laws that constrict their policy options in various ways, says Jim Lapides, a spokesman for the National Multifamily Housing Council. His organization, which is staunchly opposed to rent control, has mapped laws in every state, categorizing them by how they impact cities’ ability to develop their own policies. In addition to Wisconsin, four other states preempt both rent control and mandatory inclusionary zoning, according to NMHC’s research.

Lapides says that setting aside even a handful of a building’s units at lower rents can make the difference between the project being profitable or not. NMHC opposes mandatory inclusionary zoning policies, but Lapides says that voluntary policies, based on incentives, can work in some cities. The group, whose political donations have skewed Republican, advocates for local governments to adopt policies that it says would make housing development easier, like faster approval processes, by-right zoning, and density bonuses for certain types of development.

“It’s a really hard problem,” Lapides says. “Cities like Milwaukee are trying to find creative ways to add affordable housing, and the bad news is that they’re not alone, and the good news is that they’re not alone.”

Alderman Bauman says his goal was to get some lower-rent housing in neighborhoods that are otherwise prosperous and have good transit options. The proposal was tailored to a defined area within greater downtown Milwaukee. But once he got the city attorney’s opinion, he never considered petitioning the state to change the law.

“Our legislature is so anti-Milwaukee that it probably would have made it worse,” Bauman says.

Bauman admits that there’s less enthusiasm in progressive circles for the current version of the legislation, which would require a 20 percent set-aside for large housing projects that receive more than $1 million in city financing. The proposal was subject to a committee hearing last week, but won’t be up for final passage until the spring. Bauman hopes it could still make a difference.

“We’re making a very small dent in a very big problem,” he says. “But at least it’s something of a dent.”


There’s No Simple Formula for Rolling Out New Bike Lanes

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Bicycle advocates lined up in the middle of a Center City Philadelphia street twice in the last month, forming a human-protected bike lane in the wake of high-profile collisions.

At the end of November, a 24-year-old pastry chef named Emily Fredricks was riding in a painted bike lane when she was struck by a turning garbage truck and killed. Three weeks later, a web designer named Becca Refford, also 24, was hit by another truck just a few blocks from where Fredricks was killed. Refford, who is recovering, has shattered hips and a fractured pelvis, according to news reports.

Both collisions occurred in long-established bike lanes in the heart of the city. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Fredricks was the third bicyclist to die in a traffic incident in the city in 2017. But the city is resisting calls to reorient its bike lane plans in reaction to those specific incidents.

Shortly after Fredricks’ death, the Coalition sent Mayor Jim Kenney a list of seven steps to speed up the pace of progress on Vision Zero, the city’s commitment to achieving zero traffic-related deaths by 2030. Among the demands was that the city present a plan to protect or buffer bike lanes on two streets in the next two months (Spruce and Pine, two east-west arterials that traverse all of Center City), redesign some intersections, and repaint 23 miles of faded bike lanes.

Kenney said in response that his administration is committed to Vision Zero, and to establishing more protected bike lanes throughout the city, but that it was going to keep its focus on the high-injury network, which the two streets are not a part of, despite the recent crashes.

“While Pine and Spruce streets will continue to receive our focus, arbitrary timeframes applied to these locations hold the risk of taking important attention away from other places in the city where the data indicates the safety concerns may be more acute,” Kenney wrote.

Protected bike lanes have been shown to increase ridership and safety in cities, but Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, says that while many cities have shown interest in developing better bike infrastructure, only a few are leading the way. Approaches vary, but some are relying on data — and the numbers and voices heard during community engagement may require considerate reckoning.

“If a city has an appropriate long-term data-driven plan, it’s really hard to say no to that,” McLeod says. “But it’s also hard to ignore the emotional appeal of reacting to incidents. I know some cities have had issues where their safety responses have been based on community feedback, and sometimes that’s meant that they’ve steered more resources to louder communities, which means that they’re ignoring lower-income communities or communities that don’t have political capital.”

McLeod says that some cities, like Austin and San Francisco, have been able to build support for specific bike infrastructure projects by including them in larger transportation funding campaigns. He also noted that unsanctioned pop-up infrastructure can sometimes convince leaders that permanent improvements are needed, as Next City has reported.

Bicycle advocacy has gained steam as data has become more readily available, McLeod says. According to an inventory of protected bike lanes collected by People for Bikes, the number of protected lanes in the U.S. has roughly doubled every two years since 2006. But some cities are still way out ahead.

“It’s still a type of facility that’s in a minority of communities,” McLeod says. “There’s a lot of work to do in the rest of the country.”

In Philadelphia, the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) last week announced plans to build flexible delineator posts to buffer a bike lane on several blocks of South Street. There was resistance in the neighborhood early on, but city officials say support from community organizations and business groups in the area helped.

Advocates have criticized the city for leaning too heavily on approval from City Council members and near neighbors when making decisions about street upgrades. But OTIS officials say that getting community buy-in is essential to making street upgrades permanent. In his response to the Bicycle Coalition, Kenney said the group should redouble its efforts at civic engagement and building the case for better bike lanes.

“We want to really build the momentum and the sustained acceptance and approval for bike infrastructure, rather than rolling out a lot and having a lot of backlash,” says Kelley Yemen, the city’s director of complete streets.

Yemen says that there are monthly meetings between OTIS, the Streets Department, and the police in which they discuss recent collisions and potential quick fixes at the intersections where they have occurred. But given the funding they have for permanent infrastructure upgrades, the city wants to keep its efforts focused on the high-injury network, which is why it’s resisting calls to immediately build protected lanes on Spruce and Pine in Center City. (The Bicycle Coalition also asked Kenney to add $1 million to Vision Zero efforts, to which the mayor responded noncommittally, citing the city’s “vulnerable” finances.)

During his mayoral campaign, Kenney promised to establish 30 miles of protected bike lanes in the city. But in his response to the Bicycle Coalition’s request to release a map showing where those projects will be built, Kenney said the city would announce them individually, after consulting with surrounding communities.

“That process takes longer,” says Jeannette Brugger, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator at OTIS. “But it’s worth it with the buy-in and acceptance of the community.”


7 Layers of Racial Disparity in California Contradict the “Golden State” Myth

Though their economies tend to be high-performing, the counties in the San Francisco Bay Area have some of the worst racial disparities in the entire state of California.

In the city of San Francisco, life expectancy for Asian residents is 14 years longer than for black residents. The median income of white households is more than three times that of black households. When it comes to access to quality housing, the crisis is increasingly well documented. But what often goes unsaid is that racial disparities in housing are greater in San Francisco than in any other county in California, with white renters typically keeping around $57,000 in income after housing costs, as opposed to less than $30,000 for Asian and Latino renters.

These figures and thousands more are collected on a new interactive website called Race Counts, a wide-ranging data-gathering initiative from the civil rights organization Advancement Project California. Launched in November, Race Counts provides data on dozens of disparity indicators across seven categories: economic opportunity, healthcare access, education, housing, democracy, crime and justice, and a healthy built environment.

The data is broken down by county, and used to compare places on both their performance in key areas and the racial disparity in the same areas. (San Francisco, for instance, is a high performance/high disparity county.) The goal of the initiative is to equip organizers and advocacy groups with as much data as they need to win battles in the war against racial disparity in California.

“We constantly use proxies like income or ZIP code to get to that disparity question,” says Megan McClaire, director of health equity for Advancement Project California.

Research began for Race Counts in 2014, and the website pools information from dozens of partner organizations, specifically on racial disparities. Other projects have tackled questions of disparity in cities — like the effort to uncover racially restrictive deeds in Minneapolis — but Race Counts may be unique in the sheer quantity of information it’s gathered into a coherent picture.

“The beauty of the data is that it tells a way more nuanced picture,” McClaire says.

Advancement Project California is not shy about how it wants the data to be used. In the introduction to a report accompanying the data maps, the group lays out a starkly moral narrative about California’s development and the myths contained in its self-image as both a Golden State and a “blue paradise.” Known for its Democratic politics, the group says, California’s policies still leave too many poor communities of color behind.

“California still struggles with the undigested legacy of a long and unique history of racism,” the report reads. “Understanding that history requires, first, acknowledging the very roots of the settler colonialism upon which California was founded — the theft of Native tribes’ land and forced labor that was frequently justified with cultural and racial chauvinism.”

McClaire says the group has watched disparities in some areas even as the state has changed.

“As demographic populations were shifting there were areas where disparities were continuing to persist, like in South L.A., and areas where disparities were beginning to emerge for people of color, as we moved inland,” she says.

Disparities are greatest in the category of criminal justice, which includes indicators like truancy arrests, curfew arrests, fatalities from police encounters, diversity of police, incarceration rates, access to reentry services and perceptions of safety.

Los Angeles is ranked as both a low-disparity and low-performing county, but with a population of nearly 10 million, disparities there affect the greatest number of people in the state. In terms of the diversity of its elected officials, L.A. is among the least disparate counties in the state. But it ranks high on disparities in housing, crime and justice, and built environment indicators. Black Angelenos are 100 times more likely to be incarcerated than Asians, the report shows, while Asian residents have higher levels of contaminants in their drinking water than other racial groups in the county.

Even the areas with the highest performance and lowest disparity are qualified as places with “Gains at Risk” in the report, highlighting the organization’s focus on making equitable improvements in all parts of the state. McClaire says that as far as policy solutions are concerned, Advancement Project California hopes that diverse coalitions of local organizers will use the data to come up with their own ideas. The data doesn’t point to a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling disparity across the state, she says. But the need to address disparities exists across California.

“Just because you’re the best performing and the lowest disparity in housing,” McClaire says, “we’re still in a housing crisis in every area of our state.”


Street Planning in These Cities Rethinks the Curbside

Every Saturday for the rest of the year, it’s a free parking bonanza on the streets of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Parking Authority has announced that drivers won’t have to pay the normal meter fees after 11 a.m. on Saturdays until 2018, in order to encourage people to do their holiday shopping downtown.

But the PPA might have it twisted. If commercial corridors in U.S. cities want to attract a more reliable customer base, they may want to rethink the amount of street space they dedicate to metered parking for private vehicles, as a new report highlights. In many cases, businesses are better served when cities focus on improving the reliability of bus transit. And while redesigning streets to prioritize transit over parking is an uphill battle politically, there are cities that have taken the plunge and have seen improvements in safety, travel times and business activity on shopping corridors.

The report, “Curb Appeal: Curbside Management Strategies for Improving Transit Reliability,” was released last week by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). Pulling case studies from a few of its member cities, the group highlights a variety of strategies that have helped cities redesign streets to keep transit moving smoothly and cut down on the number of stopped vehicles slowing down traffic.

In Seattle, for example, officials created a “road diet” on a busy stretch of Rainier Avenue that reduced driving lanes from four lanes to two. At one intersection, an approaching bus will trigger a green light to clear cars from a right-turn-only lane, allowing the bus to pull ahead of the main flow of traffic. The change has improved bus travel times in one direction by three minutes, while only slowing down car travel times by one minute, according to the report. Seattle has also begun to refer to its curbside street space as the “flex zone” rather than the “parking lane,” prioritizing passenger and freight loading over vehicle parking in commercial areas.

Curbside space in cities has been used almost exclusively for private vehicle storage for close to a century, says Craig Toocheck, a NACTO program analyst and co-author of the “Curb Appeal” report. The practice is so ingrained that it seems almost natural.

But, Toocheck says, “The status quo isn’t really working super well anymore.”

Many of the changes to curbside use tend to be driven by transit agencies or city governments, Toocheck says, but the implications for businesses are great, and can be surprising to business owners. The report cites a Los Angeles study showing that merchants on a stretch of Cesar Chavez Avenue estimated that 36 percent of their patrons had arrived by car and none by transit, when in fact 46 percent had arrived by transit and only 7 percent by car. The portion of patrons who parked on the same street where they were shopping was similarly low on a thoroughfare in Brooklyn and one in San Francisco, according to the report.

Traffic often gets slowed down or blocked on commercial corridors with narrow streets, where delivery trucks, cabs and on-demand ride service cars double-park to unload goods and passengers. In such places, Toocheck says, it makes sense to clear some of the space used for parking and dedicate it to short-term loading and deliveries. Choices like that improve the flow of traffic while providing better use of curbside space for businesses.

“It’s really important to dedicate some space on those places for deliveries,” he says. “Ride-sharing companies move a lot more people than these cars that have been sitting on the curbside for a couple of hours.”

The cities that have taken the most action to reorient the use of their curbsides — the ones featured in the report — are ones where the population is growing rapidly and putting increased demand on street space, Toocheck says. When rethinking the use of the curbside, cities should consider establishing “flex zones,” clearing blocked streets for transit, creating zones for loading and access, and looking at street space and parking availability in the wider area surrounding a corridor, rather than just the street itself, the report concludes.

The most important thing cities can do is try to break the longstanding assumption that the space next to the curb should always be put to use for the building that’s closest to it.

“As the rise of for-hire vehicles has demonstrated, regulating the curb is an indispensable component of a successful urban street management strategy,” the report concludes. “Cities that begin prioritizing transit in curbside regulation today will be one step closer to managing curbs in a way that incentivizes transit and shared autonomous vehicle use rather than single-occupancy or zero-occupancy vehicle travel.”


San Francisco Steps Up on Vision Zero With “Rapid Response Team”

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Nearly four years after San Francisco became a Vision Zero city — adopting the ambitious 10-year goal of eliminating traffic deaths completely by 2024 — Mayor Ed Lee is asking the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority to create a “rapid response team” to enact immediate safety improvements on sites where traffic fatalities occur.

Street-safety advocates began pressuring the mayor to pick up the pace on Vision Zero improvements early in November, after a man named James Samiere was struck by a car and killed on busy Sloat Boulevard. The collision occurred near an intersection where pedestrian-safety improvements were already planned, and close to several areas identified on the city’s high-injury network for traffic incidents. In the wake of Samiere’s death, the pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition wrote an open letter calling on the mayor to demand improvements at the site of every traffic death and urging him to resolve delays in existing street-improvement projects.

“For years, the community, the city, and the state have been planning improvements to Sloat,” the groups wrote. “But as on many other dangerous streets in San Francisco, improvements have not come quickly enough, and a man has just paid the ultimate price as a result.”

Lee announced his directive to SFMTA in a letter dated Nov. 15, two weeks after the incident.

“One death on our streets is too many and the SFMTA needs to take swift action to improve safety at collision sites,” Lee wrote to the transportation authority. “… I recognize the good work that you and your staff have accomplished and continue to accomplish. But with 17 deaths on our streets so far this year, we need to do more.”

Representatives of Walk SF and the Bicycle Coalition say they’re glad that the mayor chose to act in response to their advocacy, but that more needs to change — and more quickly — if the city hopes to meet its goal of zero traffic deaths by 2024.

“I think that everyone we work with is really committed to Vision Zero,” says Cathy DeLuca, policy director for Walk SF. “They all believe in Vision Zero and they all believe in safe streets, but Vision Zero is an extremely bold goal. We really applauded the city when they took on that goal, but I think what might be missing is a realization that a goal that is that bold requires bold action.”

The number of traffic deaths has not decreased significantly since San Francisco adopted its Vision Zero framework. The city saw 31 people killed in traffic in both 2014 and 2015, and 30 traffic deaths in 2016, according to its own data.

Last summer, Lee was applauded for issuing an executive directive that called on every city department to undertake projects that would contribute to safer streets. But advocates have started to wonder about the efficacy of the city’s so-called “five-year rule,” a quality-of-life policy that requires city agencies to coordinate on street construction projects to keep streets from being torn up more than once in a five-year period. Some have questioned whether the rule could be contributing to delays in safety improvements, as the San Francisco Examiner reported. The rapid response team at SFMTA will be tasked with improving street conditions at fatality sites and working to resolve delays more quickly.

“The agency’s rapid response includes an analysis of what we know about the circumstances surrounding the crash, the crash history at the location, the existing conditions, and a recommendation of what engineering improvements can be made quickly,” says Paul Rose, a spokesman for SFMTA.

Advocates say the most important projects the city can embrace are those that get drivers to slow down and obey the speed limit. While only 10 percent of pedestrians die in collisions where a car is traveling 20 miles per hour, the percentage rises to 80 percent when that speed is doubled, according to the city’s Vision Zero report. DeLuca says her group and others are lobbying for state legislation that would allow them to install automated speed enforcement technology to deter drivers from speeding, similar to the red-light cameras that are already in place.

DeLuca and Brian Wiedenmeier, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, both say that they’d also like to see the city make better use of available data to inform street-safety improvements. Police data provides an incomplete picture of crashes, they say. Data provided by Zuckerberg Hospital has shown that collisions — and injuries — happen in many more cases than are reported to the police. The data would seem to allow for interventions that are more than reactive, Wiedenmeier says.

“We’ve amassed enough data to start being able to harness the predictive power of that data,” he says. “So yes, I think it’s appropriate to respond when a tragedy occurs on our streets, but it has to be done in concert with a serious commitment to addressing the predictive nature of this data. We know where people have been killed, and we know where they will be killed, unless something changes.”

Advocates say the city needs to make continuous improvements to both its commitment to Vision Zero and its efficiency in carrying out projects.

“I think that we can achieve Vision Zero by 2024, but only if the city and our community takes a much more aggressive stance toward the kinds of engineering fixes that we know are necessary to do that,” Wiedenmeier says. “It’s possible, yeah. But we’re not going to get there if the pace of change continues at what it has been for the last few years.”

The city’s two-year list of priority projects is a start, says Cathy DeLuca. But it’s not sufficient.

“They have two-year plans, and a two-year plan will not get you to a 10-year goal,” she says. “You know what I want to see next year? I want to see a six-year plan.”


Philly Business Corridor Seeks Right Mix of Growth, Preservation

Along Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, James Wright is a minor celebrity. Certainly the business owners know him: He was corridor manager for the nonprofit People’s Emergency Center for nine years before becoming director of community, economic and real estate development for PEC’s community development corporation arm. But the police officers and the passersby know him, too.

“Is this man bothering you?” joked an officer about Wright, pulling his squad car to the curb and addressing Brad Vassallo, PEC’s new commercial corridor manager, and me, on a recent Friday afternoon. “How’s the family? You been behaving yourself?” said another man a few blocks up the street, throwing his arm around Wright’s neck. “This here is my adopted son,” he said, turning to me and Vassallo. “Anytime he gets out of line … .” He trailed off, and buried Wright in a playful headlock.

Wright knows the commercial corridor’s buildings, too. The property on the corner of Hamilton Street was a gas station before a developer leveled it for student housing, he says. At one time, there were plans to convert the New Angle Lounge on 39th Street into a jazz club. The old West Philadelphia Title and Trust building at the very busy intersection around 40th used to be covered in billboards and illegal signs.

Times change. Commercial corridors persist.

Today, what’s officially called the Lower Lancaster Avenue Commercial Corridor sits at the nexus of a unique cocktail of otherwise familiar urban pressures. At its southeast end is Drexel University, a growing institution whose development ambitions are as imperial as those of its West Philly neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, in years past. Housing demand is pressing in from the West Powelton neighborhood on the northwest side. The adjacent Mantua neighborhood was declared one of five economic “Promise Zones” in the U.S. by President Barack Obama in 2014, marked as a priority for antipoverty measures and federal funding.

The corridor’s buildings are historic, and developers want to tear some of them down. At the west end, there are industrial properties and auto body shops and huge urban parks. There are signs of gentrification everywhere, but businesses on Lancaster Avenue still serve a longstanding neighborhood clientele — mainly college students and black female-headed households, according to the surveys PEC has conducted, Wright says.

Wright wants to keep it that way. And make it better. Over the last few decades, the People’s Emergency Center has managed to take ownership of a handful of key properties on the corridor, trying to stay a step ahead of the market and keep the corridor from being completely lost to the whims of developers who, at the moment, are particularly keen on student housing.

“Some landlords, when they purchase a property, they don’t really see the incentive of making the ground floor commercial,” Wright says. “And so you could end up with three stories of residential, with ground-floor residential, which kind of kills the vibrancy or the future vibrancy of the corridor. The whole goal is to preserve ground-floor commercial.”

James Wright was corridor manager for the nonprofit People’s Emergency Center for nine years before becoming director of community, economic and real estate development for PEC’s community development corporation arm.

The pressures are bound to grow, in one form or another.

A few blocks off the Lancaster Avenue corridor sits one of the biggest vacant properties near the commercial heart of Philadelphia. Drexel University, a co-owner, has plans to build a billion-dollar mixed-use science center and office hub called uCity Square on 14 acres. In a 2014 community benefits agreement, the owners agreed to add retail that serves longtime residents (including a community bank) on the Lancaster Avenue edge of the site. Construction has already started — but the site was included in Philadelphia’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.

When the online retail company announced in September that it was inviting proposals for another facility that could employ up to 50,000 people, Philadelphia, like other cities, seemed to drop everything else it was working on to prepare its pitch. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has expressed his intention to make neighborhood commercial corridors like Lancaster Avenue the cornerstone of his economic development efforts, but what American mayor could pass up the opportunity to chase 50,000 new jobs?

Whatever the outcome of that ambitious reach, the People’s Emergency Center intends to keep plugging away at micro-improvements on Lancaster Avenue, Wright says, and so are dozens of other groups focused on neighborhood corridors throughout the city. Whether the development pressures they face carry an Amazon label or not, the local advocates have at least one ally at City Hall.

“If you look at Philadelphia and its very strong and vital Center City … that’s where all the jobs are. That’s where all the development is,” says Commerce Director Harold Epps, who has toured between 30 and 40 neighborhood corridors since joining the Commerce Department at the beginning of Kenney’s term in January 2016. “And as a person of color, I just wanted to make sure that we have as much visibility, opportunity, plans, strategy and initiatives to get our neighborhoods in less-household-income parts of the city as participating in the transformation of Philadelphia as possible. And in order to do that you have to have visibility, you’ve got to have engagement, and then you’ve got to have a plan and you’ve got to have strategy.”

Stitching Together a Disconnected Corridor

Last year, a nonprofit community “makerspace” called Tiny WPA opened a new storefront with PEC at 4017 Lancaster Avenue. Working out of the storefront and a studio in the basement, the group designs and builds small-scale public works for projects around the city, and runs a program called Building Hero to train neighborhood residents ages 16 and up in the fundamentals of design and fabrication. They’ve created “playable” street furniture to be placed around the avenue.

It’s the kind of organization — “I don’t know if you really want to call them a business or not,” Wright says — that Lancaster Avenue has seen more of lately. Mighty Writers, a free writing program for city kids, opened a location in the historic Hawthorne Hall building on the avenue in 2013. A 35-year-old film training project called Scribe Video Center is opening an outpost on Lancaster Avenue soon, according to Wright. EAT Cafe began experimenting with a pay-what-you-can restaurant model last year, hoping to serve low-income West Philly residents in the process. The performing arts-focused Community Education Center has anchored the east end of Lancaster Avenue since the 1970s.

PEC’s challenge is to help Lancaster Avenue double down on the qualities that make it unique while chipping away at the issues that make it like so many other struggling corridors. In some cases, that’s taken the form of vacant lot cleaning and streetscape interventions at key corners, like an Urban Thinkscape project that’s made a playground out of a vacant lot at 40th and Lancaster. There’s also a temporary installation that has artists digging in a triangular lot at 42nd.

Pearl Bailey-Anderson, who works as a trichologist, had already been operating a beauty salon on West Philadelphia’s Lancaster Avenue for eight years before she bought her current property, a slice of Hawthorne Hall, in 1996. PEC bought the then-vacant building in 2012 and is in the midst of efforts to fully restore the former performance hall and neighboring properties and make it a vital part of the commercial corridor.

When I stopped by La Pearl Beauty Emporium unannounced in October, a storm had just passed through, and Bailey-Anderson’s daughter, Knekeya, who works in the salon, was straightening a sidewalk sign out front. The shop draws both locals and those who don’t live in the neighborhood, Bailey-Anderson says, and sometimes people will come in and say they noticed the salon while passing by on the trolley. She says she’s always thinking about how to get pedestrians to notice the shop.

Sitting in a salon chair in the basement — there are two chairs on the ground level, and she lives on the second and third floors — Bailey-Anderson recounted to me the Parable of the Talents, from the Book of Matthew, in which a master leaves three servants with a portion of his wealth while going on a trip and, upon returning, rewards each for the investment he’s made. Two of the servants are rewarded for doubling their portion, but a third is punished for simply stashing the money away.

“I always wanted to grow,” Bailey-Anderson says. “When my Lord came back, I wanted to have something more to show him.”

La Pearl Beauty Emporium

At the time she purchased the building, Bailey-Anderson says, she had no idea that it was certified historic, and that she’d have to endure a tedious approval process if she wanted to make changes to the building. But it hasn’t stopped her. In the 20 years that she’s been operating at her current building, Bailey-Anderson has installed a new deck, restored the facade and made a host of improvements to the building’s interior. To do that work, she’s applied for and received multiple grants from the city and, she says, “PEC was shoulder to shoulder with me every step of the way.”

PEC is looking for stitches in what still feels like a disconnected corridor. Currently, various portions of Lower Lancaster Avenue serve different communities. According to Wright, the area east of 36th Street is primarily frequented by college kids, the strip from 36th to 38th serves a middle-class Powelton Village community, and 38th to 40th is home to some successful black entrepreneurs. There are higher-end salons, a gym and a consignment shop, for example. The area across 40th Street is “more convenience-based shopping, less destination,” Wright says, and the two blocks west of 43rd are “a little bit hodge-podgey.”

“Despite the perception being that the nicer of the businesses tend to be east of 40th Street, the foot traffic is west of 40th Street,” says Brad Vassallo, who only began as PEC’s commercial corridor manager in September. “So how are we bridging that gap?”

A product of a public input process led by the People’s Emergency Center and the Interface Studio, the Make Your Mark plan gathers a range of priorities for the future growth of the corridor and the surrounding neighborhoods, emphasizing things like cultivating civic leadership, creating safer streets, revitalizing the commercial strip and celebrating the area’s arts heritage. “We’re still working off of those goals,” Vassallo says, even if they aren’t branded “Make Your Mark” any longer.

Lately, PEC’s attention has been focused on a former bank property it owns at the corner of 38th and Lancaster. The property is adjacent to the uCity Square site, and PEC has been trying to convene residents to create a vision for what should be done with the building.

“We hope to attract a tenant to the building that will help steward the space, the outdoor space, by adding something cool to the inside,” Wright told me in September. “It could be some sort of food access. It could be a restaurant, a produce business, it could be a farmers market of some sort, it could be an art venue, something along the creative spectrum or the food spectrum that could look after the outdoor space.”

A few weeks later, Vassallo told me that he’d been approached by a real estate agent who works with Stephen Starr, one of the city’s most well-known restaurateurs, about the possibility of opening something on the bank site. An enticing offer, Vassallo said. But maybe not right for Lancaster Avenue.

“That would generate so much income for us,” Vassallo noted, somewhat wistfully. But a Stephen Starr restaurant is exactly the sort of establishment that would speed up the University City-fication of Lancaster Avenue — the very process that PEC is trying to temper.

Dedicating Resources to Neighborhood Businesses

Twenty-six percent of the commercial spaces on Lancaster Avenue between 38th and 44th streets are vacant, according to PEC’s Vassallo. Business owners complain a lot about trash. Problems with crime wax and wane, Wright says, and have gotten more complicated as opioid addiction has spiked in the last several years. Some tenants that the group wishes would set up shop on Lancaster Avenue are wary of taking a chance on a changing corridor. (PEC has been trying to attract small-scale food manufacturers that could use a portion of storefront space for retail, according to Wright, but the commercial rents are too high for many of them.) And growing development pressure threatens a legacy of black business and property ownership that PEC wants to preserve, Wright says.

Mayor Kenney, who campaigned behind the slogan that your ZIP code shouldn’t determine your destiny, has vowed to reinvest in neighborhood commercial corridors outside Center City. So far, Kenney’s big project has been a $500 million effort to renovate neighborhood parks, recreation centers and libraries. Commerce Director Epps’ corridor listening tour has brought some visibility to the issue, but in terms of the actual policies and programs aimed at supporting neighborhood commerce, not a whole lot has changed under the Kenney administration — at least not yet. What has changed is the customer service and the access, as there have been a number of efforts to make sure small neighborhood businesses, particularly in low-income areas, are able to access resources.

“There’s been sort of a new emphasis,” says Karen Fegely, the deputy commerce director for neighborhood business services, in her Center City office. “We’ve always been here. We’ve always been doing this work. But it was sort of a renewed commitment and emphasis.”

The Commerce Department administers a humble regimen of support programs for small businesses in neighborhoods that advocates say make a big difference in corridor management. Among the most visible is the Storefront Improvement Program (SIP), which reimburses business owners for half the cost of facade improvements up to $10,000, or $15,000 for properties with multiple addresses. Between 2011 and 2016, the Commerce Department gave out more than 500 SIP grants at an average cost of around $8,000, according to data provided by the department. When the program was imperiled a few years ago by a change in federal rules about community development block grant spending, advocates rallied to the cause and convinced the city, under then Mayor Michael Nutter, to pay for the program out of the general fund.

The department also runs a forgivable loan program called InStore, which helps retailers and food businesses upgrade equipment, improve their stores and open new locations. (Tiny WPA received an InStore grant when it signed a five-year lease, says Alex Gilliam, a co-founder.) It funds streetscape improvements and cleaning and beautification efforts on various commercial corridors. It partially reimburses businesses that install security cameras in public areas. It supports community development corporations — which can also get funding through a targeted business tax credit — and helps neighborhoods that want to create business improvement districts with planning and technical assistance.

One of Kenney’s key efforts, Fegely says, has been to expand the reach of all these programs. The department has created an immigrant business strategy and has hired bilingual staff members who speak Korean, Mandarin and Spanish.

“Our programs are trying to meet a business owner halfway, and with some business owners the halfway point is different,” she says.

Epps says that his tours have exposed him to unique issues in every neighborhood corridor. But what he hears consistently is a desire for a corridor that is clean, safe and well-lighted.

“And the other common denominator is that the neighborhood or corridor will be no stronger than the involvement of the shop owners on the corridor, and then their level of structure and organization,” Epps says. “To have somebody be focused on the strategy for the corridor. That can be in the form of a CDC or a business association, but the stronger neighborhoods and corridors are those that are organized and structured and that have dedicated resources.”

Weighing the Benefits of a Business Improvement District

Lancaster Avenue is fairly well-resourced, as far as neighborhood corridors go. According to the most recent tax form available, in 2014, PEC’s community development arm had $16.7 million in assets and had revenue of $1.1 million. In addition to the purchase of properties on the avenue, PEC has staff dedicated to helping business owners take advantage of government programs. It gets cleaning grants from the city. A smaller organization, the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Owners Association (LA21), recently became a CDC as well.

But there’s not many neighborhood structures that can provide stable support and funding the way a business improvement district (BID) does. BIDs — and their cousins, neighborhood improvement districts — are quasi-public organizations that pay for streetscape improvements and other services through a special assessment on property owners in a defined area.

Philadelphia began creating BIDs in the early 1990s when the Center City District was formed. That organization is credited with reviving the downtown shopping district by focusing on cleaning, lighting, safety and marketing, but BIDs have helped transform other neighborhood corridors in the city as well, like East Passyunk in South Philly and Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill.

In 2012, the Commerce Department released a guide for neighborhoods that are considering establishing BIDs, and provides staff assistance in the process as well. But lately, new BIDs have had a tough go. Last fall, property owners on 9th Street in the Italian Market narrowly voted down a business improvement district that had been in the works for months. The Mayfair neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia had the most recent success, with a new BID on a portion of the Frankford Avenue commercial corridor. Today, Philadelphia has a total of 15 BIDs.

Rachel Meltzer, an assistant professor of urban policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School, says that BIDs tend to form in neighborhoods that are on some sort of “upward trajectory” — growing in population or experiencing an influx of more affluent residents — to supplement basic municipal services. They usually coalesce around a shared sense that the government is not keeping up with the needs of a commercial area, she says. They’re an easier sell on corridors with a lot of businesses that engage in similar activity and might demand similar services from the BID, and especially when there’s a strong anchor business or a small corps of owners who make it their mission to get a BID established.

“There’s definitely a threshold or a moment when BIDs tend to form, and I think it’s a moment when the benefits are perceived to outweigh the costs,” Meltzer says. “A lot of it is a political exercise.”

According to Wright, the LA21 business association is hoping to eventually create a BID for Lancaster Avenue. Wright says it would be a huge benefit in terms of managing the streetscape, but worries that an extra assessment could be a real challenge for some of the existing businesses. He says PEC has suggested that any potential BID be partially subsidized by a nonprofit foundation or another kind of entity, to keep it from displacing struggling business owners. (Representatives of LA21 did not respond to an interview request.) At any rate, establishing a business improvement district takes time and commitment, and planning for one on Lancaster Avenue is in the very earliest stages.

Protecting Longtime Businesses in Changing Neighborhoods

When the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations released its Commercial Corridor Policy Agenda in May, it included a suggestion that the city “should investigate creating assistance programs for longtime businesses to help them manage changes and stay in their communities.” In some neighborhoods, commercial tax assessments have risen sharply from the prior year. It was a sign of economic health, but for some business owners, it was a cause for worry.

A few years prior, after Mayor Nutter had initiated a citywide overhaul of residential property tax assessments, City Council created a policy that freezes the tax bills of certain longtime owner-occupants whose assessments had tripled or more. PACDC suggests a similar program could be created for business owners, something to ease the pressures of commercial gentrification. Such an effort has already been launched in San Francisco, and the approach is being considered in Seattle.

PACDC would also like to see an increase in the funding for the corridor cleaning program, from $695,000 to $1 million a year, an expansion of the CDC tax credit, more street safety improvements on neighborhood corridors, a step-up in code enforcement on negligent property owners, improvement of the business permitting process, and more. It advocates for an increase of the Storefront Improvement Program’s reimbursement to up to 75 percent for businesses on “significantly distressed corridors.”

“When we developed this commercial corridor policy agenda, we did sit down with [city] commerce staff, and they generally agreed that these recommendations made sense,” says Rick Sauer, PACDC’s executive director. “They agree with sort of what we’re recommending here and proposing.”

Progress on the agenda has been modest so far. But Beth McConnell, PACDC’s policy director, says that’s at least partially because the group is devoting intense attention to an inclusionary housing proposal that was introduced in City Council last spring.

One other suggestion in PACDC’s policy agenda is for the Commerce Department to “build on” the Capital Consortium it has convened to help small businesses get access to loans.

This could make a difference for Lancaster Avenue where, Wright says, there’s a need for money that is patient and flexible — not the primary characteristics of the private market. Why would a property owner on Lancaster Avenue hold out for a retail tenant that contributes something vital to the corridor when she could just rent the space to students at $600 a head?

Most corridor organizations don’t own a significant number of properties or have funding to dish out to preferred tenants. But if they can help businesses find capital easily through a stable pool of lenders, they can have some sway over the commercial mix. Commerce’s Fegely says that helping businesses tap the Capital Consortium can create good outcomes for corridors even without any city money being spent.

“It gets down to the nitty-gritty [and] is really where you make a difference,” says Fegely. “That’s the nature of our work. We’re making really small market corrections, you know? How do we make money work in some neighborhoods? And we don’t need to do everything, we just need to do little things to move things along.”

It sounds a little like alchemy. But it’s completely in line with what corridor organizations across the U.S. are doing, and in fact with what Main Street America, a program of the National Main Street Center that focuses on revitalizing downtowns, recommends. It’s a mixture of design improvements, marketing, organizing stakeholders and planned economic investments.

Whatever the Kenney administration does explicitly for commercial corridors will be outmatched by its Rebuild parks and rec initiative. Officials — and corridor managers — say that investment will have spillover effects that benefit corridors. But advocates are hoping for a more focused mayoral effort as well.

“We haven’t yet seen that turn into any major new initiatives that are particularly relevant or related to corridors,” says McConnell. “What we’d hope to see is, in future budget years, a turn to a big initiative to see how we can boost corridors.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.


Denver Transportation Gets a $430 Million Funding Boost

A healthy majority of Denver voters elected last week to approve $937 million in bond sales to support infrastructure projects across the city, with nearly half of the investment dedicated to transportation and mobility. The vote capped off a process that began in the spring with a series of community meetings meant to solicit input on which projects to fund. The bond initiative — the first general obligation bond since the Better Denver bond sale that passed a decade ago — was announced by Mayor Michael Hancock last fall.

In the interim, Hancock says, no issue generated more discussion at community meetings than transportation — from traffic congestion to bicycle and pedestrian upgrades. Denver’s population has been growing by around 2 percent a year, and added nearly 100,000 residents since the 2010 Census. That growth has made a big infrastructure investment both possible — rising property valuations give the city some additional resources without raising the property-tax rate — and necessary.

“As cities are looking at their future, as Denver has routinely done, we’re recognizing that we have a transportation system that is very automobile-centric,” Hancock says, adding that many of the millennials and baby boomers who have accounted for much of the city’s growth have been demanding better options for transportation and mobility. “The growth has kind of exposed for us the lack of infrastructure investment,” Hancock says.

The ballot initiative was broken out into eight questions, representing investments in libraries, parks, recreation centers, cultural facilities, and public safety improvements, among other things — 460 projects in all. They include $37.5 million for a new rec center in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, $38 million for renovations at the Central Library, $20 million for improvements to the Denver Zoo, and $75 million for the Denver Health and Hospital Authority to establish an ambulatory care center.

At $431 million, the Transportation and Mobility category of investments was the largest by far. It also earned the most support at the polls, with more than 75 percent of voters pulling the lever in its favor. While a substantial portion is earmarked for deferred maintenance and road re-pavings, it will also fund the construction of 33 miles of new sidewalks and a handful of new bike and pedestrian bridges. The city’s network of protected bike lanes will grow as well, with $18 million dedicated to citywide bike infrastructure.

“This is going to really bring alive the protected bike-lane network downtown,” says Piep van Heuven, the Denver director for Bicycle Colorado. “And that is really going to be noticeable and change the culture on the street, which is really exciting.”

Van Heuven served on the Transportation and Mobility Committee for the bond process, and says that while the city ended up choosing some of the best projects to fund, there were many more that were worthy of support as well. After the executive committee received all the recommendations, it went through and cut 30 percent from everything.

“It was what I would call an equitable bloodletting,” van Heuven says.

And even with the dedicated investment from the bond issue, it will still take decades to establish the Denver Moves bike network at current levels of funding, van Heuven says. Mayor Hancock says the city needs to spend $2 billion on transportation infrastructure alone over the next 12 years, and he plans to dedicate more money from the general fund to transit and mobility projects as well.

Bicycle infrastructure projects enjoy wide public support in Denver. In a poll it conducted last fall, Bicycle Colorado found that more than 60 percent of respondents favored the city spending more on bike lanes, even if that meant reducing lanes dedicated to car traffic or parking. About as many respondents said they would ride a bike rather than drive if there were more bike lanes, according to a Bicycle Colorado press release. Another poll conducted earlier this year found that 66 percent of respondents would support paying an increased sales tax to get the bike network built, according to Streetsblog Denver. But even in a relatively bike-friendly city like Denver, van Heuven says bike-lane proposals can be controversial, and the process of getting them approved is slow. She says she’d like to see a greater commitment from the mayor to expediting that process.

Denver isn’t the only city looking to make investments in transportation infrastructure. Last fall, Los Angeles voters approved a half-cent sales-tax increase to fund a new rail network and establish more bike infrastructure. Seattle voters backed a $54 billion investment in regional light rail. The Renew Atlanta infrastructure program was kickstarted by a voter-approved bond in 2015.

Hancock says he wasn’t surprised that the transportation and mobility question got the biggest share of votes among the bond questions. But the need for infrastructure spending still outstrips the city’s capacity.

“There’s still placeholders in this funding stream for the state and federal governments,” Hancock says. “Traditionally, there’s been a partnership on these issues, and just because they’re in flux doesn’t mean we let them off the hook. … The federal government has a tremendous role to play here and we certainly hope they get their act together so they can join cities like Denver who have made a commitment.”


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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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