Mary Sanders knows what it’s like to be the last one standing. At 89, she lives alone on the 1800 block of North 16th Street, in a single rowhome that sits like a besieged island between the vacant lots on either side.
Both lots are owned by the city, and both are littered with construction debris. Trucks and loaders from an active construction site across the street park so close to her door she can’t get out of the house. Weeds from the vacant lot to the north are well on their way to swallowing up her backyard. The lot belongs to, though apparently is not much maintained by, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority — but the PRA expects to convey it soon to a private developer for market-rate student housing.
Sanders is standing her ground amid a land rush that has gobbled up block after block of this North Central Philly neighborhood, spitting out low-cost student housing and leaving a trail of damage and debris behind.
Not far from Sanders, on 15th Street, is another building that’s been cornered by development — now vacant, neighbors say, thanks in part to a large crack that appeared along its front as a massive apartment complex began to spring up next door. That building is owned by developer Daniel Greenberg, who accomplished the impressive feat of securing a zoning variance that allowed him to replace an old stone church with a 36-unit monster built for housing Temple students. Greenberg wouldn’t comment on whether the damage to the building next door had anything to do with his project. A recent visit found the Philadelphia Fire Department ordering the entrance taped off in case it collapsed.
And in a dingy pile in the middle of a city-owned vacant lot at Master and Carlisle streets is a mound of bricks — yellow, new-looking and an exact match for the walls of a brand-new development around the corner. The owner of that development, a company called University Realty, L.P., also owns much of the rest of the block, which it has filled with new apartments advertised for students.
Walk in any direction on almost any block between 19th Street and Broad near Temple’s campus and you’ll find plenty more where that came from: sites improperly fenced, dried cement in the gutters, piles of construction debris illegally dumped in city-owned vacant lots, construction sites without posted permits, permits without street accommodations, development without much regard for anyone — including, apparently, for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, which should be issuing violations for all of the above.
In a city that’s seen development slow down in the recession, the rush to build around Temple is so frenetic that new structures pop up almost overnight.
Whole blocks have become construction zones of sometimes-profound sloppiness and even illegality: Rumors abound that some of the properties under construction were stolen, that contractors are paying off city garbage trucks to take their waste, that permits have been fudged. Meanwhile, adding insult to injury, signs hang off the buildings proclaiming their primary (and, indeed, probably exclusive) target: “Student Rentals!,” “Affordable Student Housing!”
The whole neighborhood has become the backdrop of a kind of whodunit — one nobody is pausing to solve. Residents aren’t in control here, and developers claim they aren’t either, especially since a proposal to turn the area into a Neighborhood Improvement District stalled out this spring. The city claims that enforcement of building codes has been stepped up. But if it has, it’s been a step up from clear insufficiency. The area’s 5th District councilman, Council President Darrell Clarke, claims that short of calling L&I himself on each infraction, he’s largely unable to intercede. Meanwhile, Temple University — the source, after all, of the students — has so far eschewed much responsibility for off-campus housing.
At the center of all this finger-pointing is a question of power: Who controls the neighborhood? And, amidst the flurry of activity, who’s trying to take the reins?
Mary Sanders, 89, has seen her entire North Central Philly block taken by eminent domain. She, however, has no plans to leave.
North Central Philadelphia has always been a battleground for land and the power that comes with controlling land — especially when it’s vacant. Decades ago, the area was one of the finest African-American neighborhoods in the country, and its stately brownstones housed many of Philly’s black elite. But as white flight drained resources from the city, good jobs left and banks routinely refused to give mortgages on North Philly homes, the neighborhood declined drastically. Houses rotted and collapsed, vacant lots multiplied, drugs dominated.
Temple slowly expanded into this vacuum of wealth and power, not always without stepping on its neighbors’ toes. In the 1950s and ’60s, the university’s use of eminent domain to expand its campus began a legacy of bitter resentment among some residents and black leaders.
In the 2000s, the specter of eminent domain resurfaced in the form of then-Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Trans-formation Init-iative (NTI), which used that power to relocate residents and demolish dilap-idated houses across Philly, including many near Temple.
In 2004 or 2005, says Sanders, NTI tried to buy out her block, which she admits had become infested with drug dealers. The city offered her money (she doesn’t recall how much) to move from her rowhouse on North 16th Street. She — and only she — refused. (Sanders’ house is now worth far more than any offer she’d have gotten at the time — a point she’s reminded of almost weekly by developers who call, ring her bell and mail her letters begging to buy her house.)
NTI was envisioned as a two-part program: demolition, then assembly of vacant land for community development. But that second part never entirely materialized, leaving North Central Philly and neighborhoods like it full of empty land and ripe for private investment. And coinciding with the increased supply was an increased demand for it from a growing Temple student body.
In many ways, that has been a good thing — almost every longtime resident I spoke with had positive things to say about the changes. Crime was down, they said; dirty lots had become new houses. But the students and their collegiate revelries are sometimes a point of contention. In Council hearings on the subject, neighbors haven’t always helped their cause, often coming off as unwelcoming and painting students with perhaps a broader brush than they deserve.
Raymond Betzner, a spokesman for Temple, says that residents have made two messages “very clear.”
Message one: “They didn’t want Temple to acquire more land.” Message two: “More on-campus housing.”
He points out that Temple is in the process of constructing a new 1,000-bed dormitory to add to its stock of 5,000 on-campus beds. But some 7,000 students live off-campus, and as Temple expands, that number is only likely to grow with it.
The beauty of cowboy development, meanwhile, is that Temple’s off-campus housing is being built without the university having to lift a finger.
The clash between students and residents is at the heart of a political puzzle that’s only getting more complicated. North Philly needs Temple to survive, and Temple needs North Philly to grow. But no one so far has had the political courage to confront the conflict at the heart of that relationship.
The university, Betzner says, has commissioned a report on student behavior in the neighborhood; it’s currently being reviewed by outgoing Temple president Ann Hart. Other than that, Temple has been noticeably quiet when it comes to solutions.
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.
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.