No wonder it came as a surprise to many to find that Temple had spent the last year exploring a plan being promoted by the private landlords themselves.
A worker mixes cement in the street on a North Central Philly block that’s almost all recent or ongoing development.
Last fall, area residents received copies of an ordinance proposed by Council President Clarke that would create a Neighborhood Improvement District, or NID, in North Central Philadelphia. That entity would impose an extra tax on landlords — and only landlords — within the defined district stretching from Girard Avenue to York Street and from just west of Broad to 19th Street. The money, according to the bill, would be spent on neighborhood services like street cleaning and security, theoretically aimed at repairing some of the damage wreaked by careless development, and on addressing student behavior (apparently with bike cops).
Clarke had described the measure as a kind of Robin Hood-esque solution to the growing frustration over out-of-control development: Take from the rich (developers) and give to everyone else.
But the measure took many residents by surprise. For one thing, they quickly realized that the plan had been in the works long before they knew about it — Clarke first broached the idea in 2010 with members of the Temple Area Property Association (TAPA), a trade group of area landlords, most of whom rent to students.
The revelation that Temple, with its tense history with the neighborhood, had been meeting behind closed doors with private developers was particularly stinging to James S. White, managing director and L&I commissioner under former Mayor Wilson Goode and a member of the Temple University Board of Trustees. White had been an active participant in negotiations between Temple and the neighborhood in the 1990s, when tensions mounted over Temple’s plans to build the 10,000-seat Liacouras Center. After long talks, a deal was brokered that included a community-development plan and benefits agreement.
When news of Temple’s involvement with TAPA came out, White was furious at what he saw as a breach of the peace that had been so delicately forged. Neighbors, White told City Council, “feel in 2012 that the university has betrayed them.”
White also recited a list of “unanswered questions” regarding TAPA and whether its leaders should be potentially administering a neighborhood-improvement district. “Have the appropriate background checks been done to ascertain their worthiness,” he asked, “to use the extraordinary powers granted” by Clarke’s bill?
The “powers” he referred to would become the subject of heated public debate over the next few months as residents appeared at two Council hearings, copies of the ordinance in hand, with a host of concerns.
During a hearing in March, Philip Browndeis, a resident of the Callowhill neighborhood and a vocal opponent of an attempt to form a residential NID there, made what would prove to be a sharp prediction about his neighbors to the north: The neighborhood opponents, he said, “will be vilified for their opposition. … It will be said they are motivated by fear, anger and a desire to stop progress.”
He wasn’t far off. Council members, during both hearings, certainly didn’t vilify residents — but they did speak repeatedly of a need for “education” and “having all the information,” implying that those opposed were the victims of mere misunderstanding.
Conversations in online forums were far less polite. The racial overtones were stark: Here were wealthy, mostly white developers offering free money to a poor, mostly black community that, critics implied, didn’t even have the sense to take it. But the characterization is deeply misguided. Residents’ concerns came not from a lack of understanding, but a close reading of the bill.
The NID would be run by a nonprofit management corporation, in turn run by a board of directors. According to the initial plan, that board would consist of nine members — four of them landlords, two of them Temple representatives, and three “other” members. That meant a structural minority of non-landlord residents. The composition of the board would be later amended to specify three “members of the community,” the councilman (or his designee), two Temple representatives and three landlords — but that composition still gave landlords and Temple the combined majority.
Residents also learned from the preliminary plan that a NID, as defined by state law, is much more than just a street-cleaning operation. NIDs are essentially mini-municipalities, with powers to tax, to enforce taxation via the city, “to acquire by purchase or lease real or personal property” and to effect “the acquisition, rehabilitation or demolition of blighted buildings or comparable structures” — the power, effectively, of eminent domain. That language was later removed, but it’s not clear that a NID wouldn’t retain some of those powers.
In a neighborhood that had seen its rowhomes condemned, demolished and replaced with a glut of student housing, it’s hardly surprising that heads began to turn.
“It was as if they had a two-year head start on us,” says Judith Robinson, an area resident, who testified against the bill.
It didn’t ease anxieties when, according to newspaper accounts, Clarke told one resident something to the effect of “You won’t have a vote, but you’ll still have a say.”
A small church on the 1500 block of North 15th Street was razed to make way for 36 units of student housing, in a neighborhood already becoming student-dominated.
Clarke has stressed over and over that his NID proposal stemmed from nothing but a desire to force the developers who’ve brought so much disorder to the streets of North Central Philly to chip in to make the neighborhood a better place to live. And members of TAPA’s executive and political-action committees, those most closely involved in planning the NID, say essentially the same: that the NID was conceived by Clarke and that its only purpose is to improve the neighborhood and foster better relationships between longtime residents and newcomers.
“The reason the NID came into place is because Clarke came to us and said, ‘I am sick and tired of complaints about student behavior.’ If anything, he holds our feet to the fire,” agrees Temple-area developer Nick Pizzola, a member of TAPA’s executive committee.
Jacob Schraeter, a New Yorker and former member of TAPA who has since largely divested himself of Philadelphia real estate, remembers it a little differently. For years, he says, Clarke resisted development in the area. But in late 2010, Schraeter says, that began to change.
“He came to us and he said, ‘I’m not going to resist student housing anymore below 17th Street, maybe 18th Street.’ What Darrell Clarke wants more than anything else is to be elected. … He realized, ‘I can keep fighting this development and lose, or I can stop resisting and put my energy where I can win.’ So what Clarke tried to do was reset the boundaries.”
Clarke has repeatedly voiced his frustration over a lack of power over private development. Since the city itself (especially L&I) is “overwhelmed” by the pace of that development, he’s said, the NID is the best tool he’s come up with to exercise control.