Archive: May, 2012
The guys behind Finnigan's Wake, at the beer-and-vomit-soaked corner of Spring Garden and Third streets, don't think small. So when Northern Liberties neighbors last year managed to turn back a plan to give Finnigan's a tiny alley called Bodine Street — which the bar had been blocking with a dumpster for years, and which the bar owners saw as the perfect spot for a two-story outdoor deck conveniently abutting the property held by their friends at the Democratic City Committee — they went back to the drawing board. The result: What you see above. Yes, those are two 800-plus-square-foot decks full of fun, which co-owner Mike Driscoll says would be necessary to his goal of converting most of Finnigan's business to catered events.
Driscoll says those decks would also be critical to financing what's pictured below, the overhaul of Bodine Street, transforming it from Dumpster Alley to Attractive Pedestrian Walkway. The rendering shows a walkway of pavers, an outdoor dining area, and a photo mural of the current Finnigan's Spring Garden facade so that passersby can remember the bad old days.
PA school privatization diverts taxpayer dollars to fundamentalists and lobbyists, according to Times investigation
A Pennsylvania program that gives tax credits to corporations in exchange for donations to private schools uses politically connected middlemen to send taxpayer dollars to religious fundamentalists, according to a New York Times investigation published today.
The Times also reported on tax-credit programs―which are effectively the same as school vouchers, turning over public money to pay for private school tuition―in Georgia, Florida and Arizona.
In Pennsylvania, 200 organizations control more than $40 million donated by corporations and take an “administrative fee” of up to 20 percent. Two of those organizations, Bridge Educational Foundation and Bravo Foundation, allegedly coordinate their “scholarship-giving" with elected officials in the state.
Bridge has served as the middleman for more than $650,000 donated by natural-gas drilling company XTO Energy (now owned by Exxon).
A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
1601 Vine St. -- Now this one's a real pisser ... a perfectly good project that was approved up the ying yang and had finances in place before getting offed by the shitbird economy. All that's left here is a crappy surface parking lot. Though there are some current plans for this site, nothing that ends up getting built here will be as cool as this.
In the middle of the Mid-'00s Philadelphia Building Boom, one of the many many (many) building proposals of the time stood out from the rest. In 2006, in a surface parking lot that has been empty for decades, a new proposal by Grasso Holdings came along for a $320 million, 1.25 million-square-foot mixed-use ultra-center with two tall buildings consisting of a five-star hotel, luxury condo units, meeting/banquet space, and a shitload of retail. It would be (yet another building) named after its address, 1601 Vine.
Early rendering with two towers.
Follow Isaiah Thompson on Twitter for updates on the city's new vacant land policies.
The city today unveiled its much-anticipated comprehensive plan for how it will sell and dispose of its massive inventory of vacant land. City officials also announced the almost-launching of a "beta" web interface that will serve as the city's "front door" for prospective buyers of vacant land, and administered by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (formerly the RDA).
As we've written about extensively, it's been a long wait. When Mayor Michael Nutter took office, and appointed former RDA Director Terry Gillen to the helm of that agency, the city's vacant land policy was something of a shambles: policies on sales prices and conditions were vague; enforcement of redevelopment contracts was often non-existent; and the RDA, under former leadership, had kept many of its records on … paper.
The idea was to fix all of that, first by essentially imposing a moratorium on the sale of land for less than "fair market value" (except in the case of affordable housing) while the administration straightened out its records, established new policies, and worked its way through a backlog of old land deals.
But it's been a while — at least a year-and-a-half, since a working group was formed to create a comprehensive policy — and frustration over the city's hesitancy in making vacant land available has been growing, noticeably in the form of various bills in City Council and a push by community groups and Council members, especially Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, to establish a land bank.
In a meeting with reporters today, PRA director Jon Carpenter and Deputy Managing Director Bridget Collins-Greenwald revealed the fruits of the nearly two years now that they and other members of a working group have been coming up a new finalized land policy and the beta version (we were asked, several times, to mention the 'beta' bit) of the web-based "front door" access system.
None of this is online yet, but your faithful Hall Monitor went ahead and scanned the paper version of the new comprehensive vacant land policy for you, doodles and all.
[Download the finalized vacant land policy in (non-text) pdf format here]
The comprehensive policy describes how land will be sold for different uses, and which uses qualify for less-than-fair-maket prices. It re-officializes the city's side lot program, allowing homeowners to acqure lots adjacent to their houses, and gives official definitions for community garden and urban agriculture uses of vacant land.
The new site allows prospective buyers to search for vacant properties, apply to purchase them, track their progress, and see an upfront price for the property (that might be subject to change).
Those prices are being determined by an internal mass-assessment project — and aren't going to be listed for ("hopefully," PRA director John Carpenter emphasized) a few weeks. Users can file applications as soon as the new site goes live (it hadn't as of publication time but was expected to at any moment), but might also want to wait until the official launch of the site in June.
What's different in the new system (and what isn't)? A quick breakdown:
— Users can search for vacant properties via a map or by filtering data by street, zip code, etc.
— Prospective buyers can see prices upfront, apply to purchase on-line, and track the status of their application as it moves through whichever agency owns the land.
— Land will be sold for below "fair market value" for a few uses other than affordable housing, as was previously the case. These uses include: side lots, economic and community development projects, community gardens and urban farms (more on that to come), and for other uses restricted by a self-amortizing second mortgage (again: we'll get to that in a later post).
— Pretty cool new map of 9,000 vacant properties for sale by PRA, PHDC, and Public Property.
— Side yard sales are back!
Not so new:
— The current system retains the practice of requiring City Council's authorization of land transfers. Because of Council tradition, the body almost always defers to the District Council person, giving that individual effective veto power over all land deals in his or her district.
— Individuals will be able to track their own applications to purchase vacant land; they (or the rest of the public), however, won't be able to other peoples' applications or the status thereof. Similarly, the PRA will keep track of the reason — Councilmanic prerogative, a lack of response from the buyer, whatever — for a terminated redevelopment agreement; but the public won't get to see that information.
— While PRA is the new "front door" to buying land, buyers still have to navigate the (often entirely different) processes of up to three different agencies.
— Side yard sales are back!
A Hall Monitor salute to our budding City Council archivers (and a quiet rebuke of the city for the fact that we need them to)
Follow Hall Monitor Isaiah Thompson on Twitter.
You know what we need more of in this city? Data. Info. Stuff anybody can access and that lets us write better stories, investigate more efficiently, and get to know our city better. That's true for professional journalists, amateur bloggers, engaged citizens, and also robots that spy on us – but spying robots is just the price we pay for freedom.
With that in mind, CP salutes two individuals who've stepped up to provide better public information.
City Council Matters (@citycouncilblog), a blog started by local man (and Temple Law School grad) Timothy R. Holwick, has been doing yoeman's work covering City Council meetings and hearings (including sitting through hours of budget hearings - which are fascinating, but only to a distinctly geeky subset of the general population).
Currently, the only way to check up on a Council meeting you might have missed is to pull the transcript, which isn't available until at least a week, and usually longer, after the meeting itself. You can watch the meetings on-line via a live feed, a service overseen by the city's Office of Technology, but that service is sorely lacking: the site offers no archive of past meetings and no way to watch this taxpayer-paid-for footage on demand.
No way, that is, until City Council Matters began archiving audio of City Council meetings. This is an immense service to all of us.
Also getting a half-salute (a full one to come pending results) is Councilman Bobby Henon who, just weeks after embarrassing the city by developing a 311 app in a fraction of the time it's taken the city not to develop said app, has embarked on a brave mission to archive *video* of City Council meetings .
This initiative originated, by way of disclosure, via a tweet by yours truly, which read:
@BobbyHenon live-streaming Channel64 on his own website. Councilman, make it *even cooler* by archiving for public? Hm?
To which the Councilman responded:
Loved your idea of online archive of Council meetings. My staff's working on it. Stay tuned for launch. Keep ideas coming.
Welcome as these efforts are, they beg the question of why the city's Office of Information Technology hasn't done more itself to innovate. To be fair, we've never asked the city to archive videos of Council hearings or make them available on demand; still, maybe we shouldn't have to.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown ("Blondie" to the Daily News) today introduced a piece of legislation in City Council that most of us (environmentalists and architects excepted) could file under "boring but important." It's a plan to require benchmarking of energy and water use for nonresidential buildings or spaces of 25,000 square feet or more in Philadelphia, and follows the adoption of similar measures in D.C., New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. The bill calls for the implementation of an online tracking program, the EPA's Portfolio Manager, "where property owners, tenants, prospective purchasers, lessees and the public at large can compare energy and water usage among comparable buildings. Property owners will find out how their buildings stack up to comparable buildings providing the tools necessary to formulate best practices and discover savings."
It doesn't sound like such a big step, but Brown hopes it will encourage more informed decisions by property owners. Andrew Sharp of Next Great City and PennFuture — which has been lobbying for such a law to be enacted — says that disclosure alone has been reported to save about 6 percent to 7 percent of energy usage, just by making people more aware and encouraging smarter choices.
"We hope this would make buyers and tenants better informed and encourage smart energy upgrades by commercial landowners," he says. "We see this as the beginning of the process. We're not even asking them to make any changes or upgrades to the building, we're just asking them to understand their usage. If you compare it to a car, it's like knowing your gas mileage. We think that's a good first step."
There's been lots of debate over Mayor Michael Nutter's Actual Value Initiative (AVI) tax reassessment program, and whether to delay it for a year until more information can be obtained. But it may all be a moot point, according to State Rep. Mike O'Brien. That's because the whole thing hinges on legislation that he says the General Assembly is unlikely to pass before its summer recess. The first bill, SB 1303, would allow the city to set the millage rates it needs. "That's a bill the administration needs that's simply not going to go anywhere in Harrisburg," he told Society Hill residents at a civic association meeting last night.
The second bill, SB 1301, would establish a "homestead exemption" for owner-occupied properties for low-income individuals; the third, SB 1302, would allow for the creation of an independent assessment appeals board. O'Brien says the structure outlined in that bill wouldn't hold up to legal scrutiny, because "state case law says an administrative body can’t be the judge, jury and executioner. You can’t assess and then also hear appeals. … We have a very flawed piece of legislation that the administration is asking for there."
"Our Republican colleagues in Harrisburg say they want the budget to pass and they want to be out of town by June 15. I can’t see these three pieces of legislation being passed and signed into law by June 15, so where does that leave us?"
Despite pressure from Mayor Michael Nutter to push through the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), a plan to bring citywide tax assessments up to market value and, in the process, collect an extra $94 million for the cash-strapped school district, Council appears bitterly divided over whether to postpone it for a year until more information is available.
With all the posturing, discussions about "manning up" for Philly's public school students, outlining of property tax relief measures and presumed behind-the-scenes grappling, there's been plenty of speculation about what will happen with AVI. Well, First District Councilman Mark Squilla — who has introduced a bill to delay AVI for a year and whose constituents in recently trendy neighborhoods like Northern Liberties, Fishtown and Queen Village are likely to be among the most severely affected by AVI — pretty much laid out the battle lines as he seems them at a Society Hill Civic Association meeting last night. His plan to delay AVI for a year, he said, has four supporters (Councilmen Brian O'Neill and Bill Green, and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell), and four staunch opponents, (whom Squilla did not name but whom one might presume to be Councilmen Curtis Jones and Wilson Goode Jr., and Councilwomen Blondell Reynolds-Brown and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez). That leaves the majority of Council on the fence, and the Nutter administration apparently lobbying hard.
Squilla says Council is being asked to green-light the initiative without remotely understanding how residents would be affected or how well relief measures like the homestead exemptions Council President Darrell Clarke introduced would work. Though 96 percent of assessments have been done, there's apparently a great deal of "massaging" of the numbers yet to occur. He says, "The mayor has two of his delegates come down to my office three times a week to explain to me how the AVI system works and why it's beneficial to our city. I said, 'The more you come and explain it to me, the further away I am from understanding.'" He joins Green and others who have called the administration disingenuous on this point. "The administration don't want us to know these numbers because, I believe, they know them now, and I believe they're going to collect a lot more money from this than they're telling us."
The fiscal crisis facing our public schools is being exploited by a movement to privatize public education, break unions and subject students to high-stakes test-prep regimes. But it is a crisis nonetheless — one that requires long-term solutions, immediate band-aids and, critically, a substantial commitment from Philly’s largest stakeholders.
As I’ve reported, the state, whose School Reform Commission (SRC) has controlled Philly schools since 2001, has underfunded poor districts for decades. This fiscal year, Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican legislature slashed nearly $300 million of Philly’s funding. The district now faces a $218 million deficit for the coming year and a $1.1 billion cumulative five-year shortfall.
“We have a dysfunctional conversation here,” Republican City Councilman Dennis O’Brien told the SRC last week. “We have a five-year plan [from the district] with no anticipated revenue from the state until 2016 or ’17? What the hell is up with that?”
Philadelphia recently published its first "Homeless Death Review" and the result is a portrait of a safety net that's both inefficient and fragile in the face of anticipated cuts to state welfare programs and the potential repeal of the federal Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).
Of the 90 homeless who died (at an average age of 53) in 2009 and 2010 and were included in the review, many did utilize medical care and other services, and some had "well over 500 encounters with shelters, hospitals and other public systems. Still, these individuals remained homeless at a high cost to the public," the report found.
The review found 55 percent of those who died had no health-care coverage, and raise worries that this figure could soon become even more dire as state and federal cuts loom ahead. Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed to eliminate General Assistance — the one-time, nine-month cash assistance program Pennsylvania offers — and to cut two-thirds of GA-related Medical Assistance funding. If that happens when the fiscal 2013 budget is finalized, "many of those who have health insurance today can expect to lose their coverage. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will become critical." Moreover, even notifying people that they've lost their health-care coverage could prove an insurmountable challenge, without addresses and phone numbers to use.
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