With audible frustration, he told one NID opponent at the May hearing, “I get credit from some of my colleagues … [when] they see new housing. I have to tell them, ‘I had nothing to do with that: That’s private developers building private housing.’”
Like his mentor and predecessor, former Councilman and Mayor John Street, Clarke has staked his reputation on development, especially of affordable and mixed-income housing projects around North Philadelphia. His office is famously lined with ceremonial shovels.
But these have been bad years for that kind of development. Federal and state funds have dried up. What’s more, when Mayor Michael Nutter came into office, one of his first moves was to all but suspend the giving away of city-owned vacant land for anything but “market value.”
The majority of new projects around Temple, developers say, are houses bought on the (relative) cheap by wealthy investors and then renovated or razed and replaced with minimal permitting and “over-the-counter” zoning: Most of the houses west of Broad are zoned R9, or “multifamily.” Conversion to rental apartments can often be done without facing the Zoning Board of Adjustments. Clarke has not attempted to remap the area with tighter zoning controls, which would require variances for large developments.
When it comes to vacant land, the story of power and incentives gets more complicated. The disposal of city-owned land requires a City Council ordinance, direct from the district councilperson. It’s a bludgeon of Councilmanic might, and Clarke uses it in curious ways.
Several developers City Paper spoke with complained that clearing vacant-land deals through Clarke has been extremely difficult. Yet over the years, Clarke has introduced dozens of ordinances authorizing the PRA to sell land, including land near Temple — and including over the past two or three years, as concerns over development mounted. Several of the beneficiaries of those ordinances have been TAPA members — and have donated generously to Clarke’s campaigns.
Those donors include Pizzola, whom Clarke helped to purchase two city-owned lots on 17th Street for $81,000; Jonathan Weiss of Templetown Properties, a development company that won authorization to purchase two lots on West Oxford Street; and a company called Sophisticated Investments, which benefited from the Clarke-enabled acquisition of two lots on the 1600 block of Diamond Street. TAPA members Herb Reid and Herb Reid Jr., the owners of Maze Group Development, have donated at least $7,600 to Clarke’s campaigns over the years and have recently been approved to redevelop the PRA-owned lot next door to Mary Sanders.
Among those donations, one stands out in particular: That of United Homes Builder, a limited-liability company that donated $10,000 to Clarke’s re-election campaign last year. That company is registered at an address it shares with at least half a dozen other LLCs that own properties around the city, and especially around Temple, several of which were acquired thanks to Councilmanic assistance.
None of that is to say there’s anything untoward in either the councilman’s approving land sales or the beneficiaries choosing to contribute to Clarke’s campaign. But it is a reminder that while out-of-town and out-of-neighborhood landlords aren’t Clarke’s constituents, they are among his biggest donors. Clarke has for years commanded a war chest that puts many of his colleagues in Council to shame — and many of those donations come from developers. TAPA’s senior members are among the most generous.
Creating a NID administered in part by the same people, itself generating some half a million dollars a year in revenue, makes some residents wary indeed.
Tarik Nasir, a landlord and member of TAPA who’s been vocal in his opposition to the NID, says he sees in its creation a political cash cow. “It’s a nonprofit, so it’s got to spend that money,” says Nasir. “Think about it: contracts, jobs, T-shirts, whatever — all that money flowing to wherever the NID wants. It’s a patronage machine.”
“Money is speaking, buying,” worries Elouise Edmonds, a retired planner who has worked for the city and lives in Philly’s Yorktown neighborhood, where attempts to increase student housing were blocked by a successful lawsuit. “Money buys what developers want … and basically, they’re doing exactly what they want in North Philadelphia.”
An easy way to spot a new development in North Central Philadelphia: Look for piles of construction materials dumped in vacant lots nearby.
Since the second contentious Council hearing, the NID is “on hold indefinitely,” says Clarke spokesperson Roh. Ultimately, the problem for residents of North Central Philly is one of power. Unable to control development, the community was asked to hand over even more power to developers to clean up the mess they themselves had made.
But while a few civic organizations exist in the area — the Community Land Trust run by Vivian VanStory, who’s helped lead opposition to the NID, the Consortium of Cecil B. Moore Organizations — none of them resembles the robust civic associations that allow wealthier neighborhoods, for better or worse, to keep a tight grip on development.
CP reviewed zoning files for larger developments that replaced smaller houses near 15th and Cecil B. Moore. Many required no variance, but several that did require hearings saw no community representation aside from a single letter from the local ward leader. In the case of the aforementioned 15th Street 36-unit complex, ward leader George Brooks mentioned a “concern” about parking, but gave support anyway. (The developer had provided three parking spots — but all were leased to Zipcar.)
What the North Central Philadelphia NID would have meant for neighbors isn’t clear. What is clear is that without a strong voice — maybe comprised of the same voices that have out-shouted the NID proposal — neither Clarke, nor L&I, nor Temple, nor anyone else seems able or willing to stop development from taking its own course. Unless, of course, that’s the plan.