urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Philadelphia Planning Week 4 (Nick)

This week I continued with a lot of the same projects that I have been working on this summer including the rezoning project and the commercial corridor revitalization project. These continue to go well and teach me a lot as I sit in on meetings and get an insider view into the political process and the connection between government, the market, and the public.

A new development (this will soon be a pun) is that I have started to manage a database for the development team in the Planning Commission (see what I did there). This entails a little bit of tedious data entry but has also served as a gateway to an entirely different set of processes that exist int he office and city. Development is the group that serves as the planning branch to developers and citizens who want to build or alter buildings within the city. I have had the pleasure of sitting in on a heated Zoning Board meeting in which a developer had written angry and aggressive letters to the residents of the area about a project that they did not want. The project went to the Zoning Board because it required variances in the zoning code about what height, size, and how many units could be built on the proposed lots. There was a room full of people, some in support, and many against the development. NBC was there to cover the story, and emotions were high in the room. It was amazing to see so much public participation in the public and private realm dealings.

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This week I also attended the first public meeting for the Central Northeast District Plan. At this meeting I was able to see how community input might be gathered and what some of the concerns are of this district in the city. The meeting was held in a well known historical landmark called Knowlton Mansion and there were about 100 citizens in attendance and about 25 city planning staff. Something that I was able to gather from this meeting that reinforced my experience at the DVRPC public meeting (see week 2), is that most of the community that engages with planning processes that look decades into the future is the elderly with no youth and very little young population. This means that the input that the planning commission is getting is extremely skewed. The missing parties seemed to be young professionals and younger families who might be the ones living with the future plan that is being formed through these meetings. While that fact was a little concerning, the meeting was still a huge success with a high attendance, very few bumps in the road, and an amazing insight into the process and the passion of the people I am working with to help move it all forward. Yet again, NBC news was there to over the story which was pretty cool. (I was the photographer… lots of pictures)

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Another great experience this week was a luncheon between the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). During this lunch we got to know the other organization a little better, and the DVRPC also presented on their new 2040 plan. This was a great view into the collaboration between planning organizations and how they work together and try to stay on the same page. The most interesting thing that I learned at this meeting that was different from the previous one is about transportation funding structures. The most incredible fact I learned is that the Philadelphia region has one of the lowest local funding basses for transportation in the country. We provide about $21 per capita in the Philadelphia region whicle the national avg is about $120 per capita. When I did out the math, this means that if we were just to get to the national avg, we would have an extra billion dollars a year in transportation funding. With a 30 year budget currently around $53 billion, that $30 billion would do a lot for the region. At current funding levels there is a lot of maintenance left unfunded on bridges, roads, and rails and no money in the coffers for transit expansion. If we want to be able to compete as an urban region, we really need to step up our game. I also learned that this is largely due to PA taxing structure and policies. In a state that is mostly rural by land area and county representatives, with a Republican governor, and the most structurally deficient bridges in the country, it is going to take a lot for things to change for the most urban and democratic area in the state.

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Finally (long week to say the least!), the exploring government this week focused on the judicial system and finance department. We learned about how Philadelphia tightened its belt during the recession and why the city did not take advantage of cheap building costs during the recession where private companies and the federal government might have. The answer is that there were important priorities and the city can only handle so much debt service while not being able to raise taxes for projects. The director of Finance Rob Budow made the comment that government is public and political, and that is part of what makes it interesting for him. The panel also took us through how much the city’s government has changed in the past years and the level of responsibility the cities are taking on which requires them to tighten their belts and become more professional than ever before. The last thing they talked about is the Actual Value Initiative (AVI) which is the biggest project being undertaken by the government during this administration. This initiative is meant to overhaul the property tax system to make it more fair and accurate. An issue that has plagued the city for a long time is that property taxes were being raised in some areas and not in others as a way of increasing city revenue. This has left a broken system that makes no actual sense where properties are no longer evaluated under any common guidelines. Mayor Nutter is setting the goal to have the system completely redone by the end of his administration. This means some people may see higher taxes, and some lower, so the city is also putting through policy to make sure to not accidentally spur on gentrification, and also not to great a rush for property in any districts. It was an eye opening panel for sure.

For the judicial panel, we traveled to the civil court in city hall and met with Judge Rizzo who is one of the coolest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. She pioneered initiatives in the judicial branch of government to try to control the foreclosure crisis during the start of the recession. She brought together banks and citizens to settle instead of getting kicked out of their housing in a win-win-win situation. The person was able to stay in their home, the bank in the long term would make much more money when the person was able to start paying their mortgages again, and the city did not have a flood of people who were made homeless that would need social services in a city already strapped for funding. The model has been copied all around the country and has been celebrated as a major success by the judicial system.

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Thank you so much for reading, and get ready for a mid-summer video update coming soon.

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