Archive: March, 2012
A weekly series of foulmouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other development and design phenomena in Phlladelphia. Find more stories like this at philaphilia.blogspot.com.
Southeast Corner of 22nd and Walnut. This lot is pitiful. This part of town has no damn excuse to have an empty hole like this at such a high-traffic corner. For 42 years, this shitty lot has reigned supreme over what should be an awesome intersection. It becomes even worse when you find out what used to be there: a cool-ass historic mansion owned by one of the biggest-balled motherfuckers in all Philadelphia history.
The story of this lot begins with Philaphile and Generalized Badass George W. Childs. This guy was born in poverty in Baltimore in 1829 and stopped at nothing to become a Master of the (Philadelphia) Universe. He got his first job when he was 12 and joined the U.S. Navy at 13 (!!!). At 14, he came to Philadelphia, worked for a book shop and was trusted with buying new books from auctions. Now just think about how lazy and entertainment-distracted today's useless teenagers are.
While they obsess about tweeting and posting kissy-face photos on Facebook, this guy was actually accomplishing shit. By the time he was 18, he was running his own publishing firm from an office in the old Public Ledger building. Ironically, a guy who never went to high school published the best-selling high school science textbook of the period.
Anthony Drexel and Jude Law... I mean George Childs.
A few weeks ago, the city’s Board of Ethics announced several settlement agreements over campaign finance violations by various candidates for office last year, among them City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who acknowledged several violations of the city’s campaign finance code (Singer had, in fact, reported the violations herself when she later became aware of them).
Also named in the settlement agreement was Ellen Chapman, Singer’s campaign treasurer — who, CP discovered this week, has since been appointed a deputy commissioner in Singer's office.
Among the violations in the most recent settlement: collecting contributions in excess of the city’s limit from Singer’s brother David; accepting, on the eve of the primary, excess contributions from one Liz Kaplan in the name of her husband and son but drawn on her own checking account; and failing to disclose those contributions in the 24-hour reporting period required two weeks before an election. The settlement certainly paints a picture of messy campaign finance records; at worst, it could imply defiance of campaign rules on the eve of a competitive election.
But it also provides a off-color backdrop for Singer’s decision to appoint Chapman to the Deputy Commissioner role. The recently settled case wasn’t the first time the Singer campaign made errors: Singer signed another ethics violation settlement agreement last year, acknowledging making tens of thousands of dollars in expenditures on campaign materials from Singer’s private credit card rather than from the campaign committee's account.; and last July, Public Record columnist David Lynn, whose campaign finance columns are nothing if not meticulous, found various inconsistencies and errors in Singer’s campaign records, stating that “her filings are in disarray.”
Effectively, Chapman is taking one of the positions once occupied by former City Commissioner Rene Tartaglione, daughter of long-time City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione, whom Singer ousted in May. (Rene Tartaglione was found to have engaged in ethics violations as well, by engaging in political activities while working as a civil servant overseeing elections).
Singer, who, along with fellow insurgent City Commissioner Al Schmidt, recently passed rules severely ending patronage among city election workers, told CP on Wednesday, “It’s illegal to reward political support with city funds … and I haven’t done that.” Chapman, Singer argues, is “reliable, smart, and trustworthy and … understands how processes within an organization will affect how that organization performs.”
Singer also hired former Second District City Council candidate and ousted committeewoman Tracey Gordon as a deputy commissioner (Singer had been a vocal supporter of Gordon in her fight against the city’s Democratic party to retain her committeeperson post), as well as Dennis Lee, who managed her campaign.
I should emphasize here: There’s nothing unusual about elected officials hiring on people who worked on their campaigns — from the President of the United States on down to City Council members, it’s a common practice. Reformist candidate and insurgent Republican Al Schmidt, who won a seat as City Commissioner in November, acknowledges hiring two of his campaign staffers as deputy commissioners, saying it only makes sense to hire individuals that “share my work ethic and share my ideas.”
Schmidt adds that deputy commissioners are civil servants and therefore barred from various political activities, including assisting with his campaign. “My best professional gain is my political loss,” he told CP. Schmidt and Singer both draw a distinction between the kind of nepotism and cronyism they swore to overturn and the appointment of high-level staffers who share their values.
Zack Stalberg of the good government watchdog Committee of Seventy agrees.
“Practically speaking, this is one reason people get involved in campaigns, for the opportunity to work in government down the road. That’s a legitimate motive, and the campaign is a great place [for the candidate] to find out whether an individual is good or not,” says Stalberg. “The real issue is whether they hire quality people."
Fair enough, says this Hall Monitor: Hopefully the quality of work Singer's staff performs in the City Commission is a little tidier than than it was on the campaign trail.
This morning, the U.S. Attorney's Eastern District office announced charges against Robert Coyle, Sr. — the Philly slumlord who built an empire of run-down houses in Kensington and Port Richmond and, according to accounts collected by the Daily News and City Paper, made false promises to tenants about "rent-to-own" agreements.
At the height of the housing bubble, Coyle leveraged his properties to take out increasingly massive loans from several local banks — and shortly after the housing market crashed, Coyle walked away from his debt, defaulting on more than $5 million in mortgages.
Coyle is being charged with four counts of loan fraud for allegedly falsifying documents and information submitted to several banks — not with defrauding his tenants, though it remains to be seen whether federal civil charges will be filed as well.
More often than not, these cases end in a settlement: but it's possible Coyle might go to trial. As I reported in 2010 (read this for an overview of the entire case), documents filed as part of a civil suit by Republic First bank against Coyle revealed that Coyle had his own case to make: that Republic First had effectively collaborated with Coyle in inflating the value of his inventory and steered title insurance business his way in exchange for Coyle's taking on his son's bad debt:
According to Coyle, he and the bank were in talks over a large mortgage deal when Republic First "requested that [I] take on additional properties" — properties that belonged to Robert Coyle Jr., his son, under various company names — "which had existing debt in excess of [$2 million] ... at a price higher than their true value so [Republic First] would not have to take a write-off."
In exchange for taking his son's bad debt off the bank's hands — records show that in 2006, Republic First sued Coyle Jr. for $2.3 million — Coyle alleges, the bank agreed to steer title insurance business to Coyle's company, National Abstract Savings, to the tune of $20,000 per month. Moreover, Coyle says that Republic First intentionally inflated the value of his homes to make them seem worthier of the loans.
Here's a copy of the indictment.
Hall Monitor: Land Plan Part 2 — Urban farmers worried that city's vacant land plan won't meet their needs
This post is part of a series on the Nutter administration’s long-awaited and soon-to-be-announced comprehensive policy on how it will dispose of city-owned vacant land. Click here for an overview; for more, check back on Naked City and follow Hall Monitor Isaiah Thompson on Twitter.
The city has yet to release its finalized plan for how it will dispose of — sell, give away, lease, etc. — the massive inventory of vacant land it owns. In December, however, the city did circulate a draft proposal (a copy of which City Paper obtained) to various stakeholders that laid out various proposed policies and uses for vacant land — among them “urban gardens” and “community gardens.”
But those mentions didn't do much to convince Philly's urban farmers — in fact, many were left more worried than before.
As we noted in our “Vacant Land Issue” last summer, the relationship between the Nutter administration and urban farmers has been a somewhat-tortured one. On the one hand, Nutter has promoted green space, healthy food access, and the creation of more urban farms on vacant or unused land. On the other hand, the administration has shown a particular reluctance to sell land at reduced prices for farming or grant farmers the long-term leases that urban farmers say they need to succeed and draw investment.
In early December, a draft of the proposed vacant land policy was circulated on the Philadelphia Urban Farmers’ Network (PUFN) list-serv.
While it did mention “urban gardens” and “community gardens,” it make no mention of commercial urban farms, in fact specifying that individual gardeners could use the land only for “non-commercial gardening purposes,” and that community gardens could be used only for “personal or group consumption, donation, or sale that is incidental in nature,” – all of which flew in the face of those seeking to create a business model out of urban agriculture.
That wasn't the end, either: the draft policy said that the required “Urban Garden Agreement” would last just one year at a time, and that the City and the gardener may terminate [the agreement] at any time, with or without cause,” and that the city would “use reasonable efforts to avoid terminating the urban garden agreement between April 1 and November 1.”
Land might be leased for gardening, in other words: but not for commercial use, only for a year at a time, and with no promises that the land wouldn't be taken back should a developer come along — even, perhaps, in the middle of the growing season.
A coalition of urban farming supporters including the Philadelphia Urban Farming Network (PUFN), the Food Organizing Collaborative (FORC), the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council (appointed by Mayor Nutter in 2011), held meetings to collect input.
On December 22, the coalition presented the city with a seven-page list of concerns, among them:
—That “there is a need for a more transparent public process and more community engagement in the development of vacant land policy.”
—That the policy had failed to take into account market farming
— That the city's insistence that gardeners immediately have liability insurance was unrealistic.
— That the city's proposed one-year lease was untenable and that “three years with a three-year renewal option is the absolute minimum lease term appropriate for vegetable production. This takes into account the investment necessary for lot cleanup and clearing, testing for and remediation of toxics, soil building, and infrastructural needs, as well as the time it takes for a project to be sustainable from organizational, financial, and community building standpoints.”
On January 12, the coalition sent another letter.
The Managing Director's Office, did speak with City Paper on Tuesday about the forthcoming vacant land policy — but declined to comment after CP obtained the earlier draft and inquired about various details, including the urban farmers' concerns.
Deputy Managing Director Bridget Collins-Greenwald wrote in an email that “We have no comment at this time as this is not the final policy document.”
Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who has been involved in many discussions of the forthcoming policy, says she simply doesn't know whether or how the language on urban gardening might have changed since she last saw it.
Meanwhile, Amy Laura Cahn, who runs the Garden Justice Legal Initiative out of the Public Interest Law Center, and who was heavily involved in the discussions, says that she's hopeful that the city's taken her coalition's input into consideration in the soon-to-be-unveiled plan — but that all she and the city's budding and would-be urban farmers can do right now is guess, too, and wait.
Of course, by the time they get an answer, it'll may have the mayor's signature on it. And that, they point out, is what worries them.
But whatever plan in unveiled, says Cahn, "In developing, as other cities like Baltimore and Seattle have done, their pilot projects, this is a great opportunity for more public input."
Natural gas companies drilling in Pennsylvania's stretch of the Marcellus Shale have become major media spenders, investing in billboards, newspaper advertisements and even financing a highly promoted a local hospital expansion, to the point where some local citizens feel they no longer have a voice. "It’s kind of like the company town of coal-mining days," says Rebecca Roter, a resident of Brooklyn Township, Susquehanna County.
Fed up with the fracking messages dominating local media, Roter and her neighbors decided to lease their own billboard space, to host warnings about the impact of fracking. Now, she says, they're being censored by the billboard company.
Hall Monitor: Land Plan (part one) — The city's close to unveiling its long-awaited plan for disposing of vacant land
This is the first in a series of posts examining issues around the Nutter administration’s soon-to-be-released comprehensive plan for disposing of city-owned vacant land. For updates, check back on Naked City and follow Isaiah Thompson on Twitter.
The city is apparently within days or weeks of releasing a comprehensive plan for vacant land use. For anyone as obsessed with vacant land politics and policy as we’ve been over the past year, it’s been a long wait: A task force comprised of members of the city’s Redevelopment Authority (recently renamed the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, or PRA) and the city’s Managing Director’s Office, have been meeting with various officials and members of Council for something like two years now. The plan was originally said to be nearly ready last winter, and then last fall. After that, things seemed quiet. But now, the final plan is almost ready.
What’s in it? We don’t entirely know yet: your own Hall Monitor obtained an earlier draft of the plan, which was circulated on a public list-serv last December, but officials in the Managing Director’s Office say that was just one of several drafts and that some changes have been made.
(CP asked, of course, to see the current draft, but the MDO says it won’t comment on particulars until the plan is finalized).
Nontheless, conversations with Deputy Managing Director Bridget Collins-Greenwald and other sources indicate that many of the main elements outlined in the draft remain in place (you can read more about this in my Hall Monitor column in this week’s City Paper):
The new plan will:
— Recognize different uses of vacant land, some market-based and others (like green space, affordable housing, etc.) which benefit the community.
— Allow for different pricing of vacant property based on its use: property may be sold directly, bid on an open market, or sold at reduced rate in certain cases.
— Create a “front door” for anyone interested in buying any city-owned vacant land for sale. The city’s inventory will be listed on a web site, which will also allow the public to electronically indicate interest in a particular property and begin the process of bidding to acquire it.
— Contain various mechanisms to enforce the timely completion of redevelopment agreements.
— Reinstate the semi-discontinued practice of letting residents who live adjacent to vacant, city-owned lots acquire those lots as side-yards.
— Allow for urban and community gardens. (more on that to come soon).
The new plan will not:
— Do away with “Coucilmanic Prerogative” — in this case, the requirement that all such land sales or transfers be approved by resolution of the district Council person. Because Council members almost always defer to the district representative, this means each district Councilperson has a de facto veto power over any land transaction.
The fallout from former Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's implosion now reaches all the way to Louisville, Kentucky.
Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens has hired former Ackerman communications aide Jamilah Fraser as her chief diversity, community relations and communications officer. But School Board members have demanded more information as to why Fraser left her job in Philly.
The Courier-Journal cites City Paper's reporting that Fraser was part of a “communications team dedicated to promoting and defending [Superintendent Arlene Ackerman] personally, and which coordinated and assisted public rallies in her favor, communicated regularly with private supporters, and spent taxpayer time and money on various kinds of ‘propaganda,’ including protest signs and a farewell tribute video.”
As Hahnemann University Hospital moves toward eliminating certified nursing assistants from its payroll, a decision that was reportedly based on the success of a pilot study at the hospital, City Council's Committee on Public Health and Human Services will hold hearings to determine what nursing assistants' roles in Philly health care ought to be. A number of Hahnemann employees who expect to lose their jobs as of July spoke out at a council hearing today, calling the hospital's initiative barely veiled union-busting. Licensed practical nurses have already been eliminated from Hahnemann, while housekeeping, dietary services and patient escort services have all been outsourced, according to the union, District 1199C of the National Union of Hospital and Helath Care Employees.
Hahnemann announced the program in February as a major advancement in care. The Inquirer reported:
"The percentage of nurses who said they could complete their work during their shift rose from 37 before the pilot to 74 after, reducing overtime payments. Fewer patients got bedsores or had trouble with blood thinners. The number of emergencies at the bedside was nearly halved — a sign … that nurses were identifying problems before they got out of hand. Fewer patients fell. Patient satisfaction rose, especially with pain control."
But nursing assistants speaking today painted a different picture:"If the nursing assistants are cut out of Hahnemann hospital, patient care will decline or cease to exist," said Hahnemann worker Ericka Williams. "There are patients that are not able to feed themselves, toilet themselves or bathe themselves; we are there. … Do you think the RN has the ability to do their job in addition to another eight-hour job, [that of the nursing assistant?]" Elaine Murchison claimed that some doctors are already beginning to steer their patients away from Hahnemann, and Helena Lozada said matters will only get worse: "There's a lot of critical care there that is not being taken care of."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania and 19 civic and religious organizations are asking state Attorney General Linda Kelly to investigate New York Police Department (NYPD) spying on Muslims at the University of Pennsylvania.
A letter from the ACLU to Kelly condemned “violations of the civil rights of law-abiding Pennsylvanians (as well as residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) who have been the targets of massive, abusive surveillance practices based on their ethnic or faith background, and the NYPD’s false and misleading statements about these discriminatory policing activities. The seriousness of this problem cannot be overstated, and we urgently request that you conduct a prompt investigation into this matter."
Last month, the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD had engaged in the widespread surveillance of law-abiding Muslims throughout and beyond New York, including at universities like Penn and Yale.
 Mayor Nutter was reportedly caught on video slapping the butt of a woman he drank and bowled with at North Bowl last summer, but he convinced Fox 29 not to air it. “We… We can’t air it. Destroy the video. Destroy it!” the stunned station manager said after his closed-door meeting with Nutter. “The mayor’s got dirt on all of us. Jerrick and Jennaphr and — dear god Schratwieser, the file he has on you alone would ruin this station. And you, Sue Serio. I mean, those were people. They were people. And you didn’t give one tiny shit. You just mowed them down. Moms, dads, kids, all of them. It’s horrible. You are horrible.”
[-5] Three dogs and nine puppies are rescued from a suspected dogfighting operation in Kensington. Officers described the scene as one-fourth terrifying, three-fourths precious.
 The Parking Authority’s new budget forecasts raising $50 million for the city, thanks to the increase in meter rates. Wow, that’s like free money except we’re still paying it! Thanks, PPA. We forgive you guys for being the worst drivers and parkers in the city whose reckless, unchecked behavior and corrupt bureaucracy are a danger and embarrassment to us all.
[-3] A local millionaire is fined $100,000 for stealing a mammoth tusk from an Alaskan wildlife refuge. “That’s right, even thousand-year-old pieces of long-dead wildlife fall under our purview,” says park ranger. “Why, we’ve got a whole preserve set aside just for tusks, where they can run and swim and bask in the sun themselves. They mostly bask."
 According to Pew polls, the number of Philadelphians who think their tax burden is too high is increasing every year. Also, Philadelphians are paying better attention to questions in polls.
[+3] Fatima “TNT” Maddox, a Temple grad, becomes the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters in 19 years. “Don’t you muck this up, woman,” says starting center Cornell “Popcorn Shrimp” Reese. “We’ve got one funky ass winning streak going.”
[+3] Mayor Nutter is trying to lure a 1,000-room hotel to the Convention Center area. By slapping its butt and doing “Rappers Delight.” “It’s all I know,” he shrugs.
[-10] Jan Berenstain, co-creator of the Berenstain Bears and a Philly native, passes away.
This week’s total: -12 | Last week’s total: -6
- Ask A Man-About-Town
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