"It can be difficult, but difficult for a reason," says Herb Reid 3d, vice president of the Maze Group, a developer that's done large projects in the Temple University area of the Fifth District, and a member of the Temple Area Property Association (TAPA), a group of influential local developers.
Reid, like most developers, says that he wants to see the process of buying vacant land separated from city politics. But he also says he understands why Clarke and other Council members feel a need to keep a close eye on who gets land deals. "The councilman wants to see that you can deliver," says Reid. "He's being responsible."
Indeed, Clarke faces a delicate balancing act when it comes to promoting private development and being responsive to his core constituency, especially around the booming Temple University area, where residents worry about being gentrified out and accuse students of being bad neighbors. Last September, Clarke introduced a bill in City Council that would ban new student housing around Temple.
The proposal was highly controversial — and, as critics pointed out mockingly in online forums, possibly illegal. But what critics called a foolish law, developers who've worked closely with Clarke described as a tactical move. "He divides by economics, by race — he'll do anything he can to keep people fighting so they don't see what he's actually doing or not doing," says one developer who used to do business in the Fifth District.
Not long after, Clarke introduced another bill that would create a Neighborhood Improvement District in the area, imposing an extra assessment on most new developments while exempting owner-occupied houses.
The bill's implication is that more development will be allowed, but not without the neighborhood's getting its share — a compromise some developers can get behind. TAPA (many of whose members, including Reid, are generous donors to the councilman's campaign committee) has come out in full support of the bill. (A call to the Yorktown Community Organization, which has fought scattered student housing, was not returned.)
"You come to him with a proposal, and he says, 'What's in it for the community?' I think he's managed that appropriately," says one longtime observer of Clarke's development policies. "But the question is whether there's a wider view of what the city's policies should be — or is it all just reactive?"
Clarke has proven himself a tactical master of Council politics, using legislation to achieve favorable ends for himself and his allies on Council. His skill has been particularly evident over the past year, as he worked to shore up support for his presidency and prove his abilities as a leader.
Last June, Council wound up in a marathon session as it considered two major proposals — one to mandate paid sick days for city workers, and the other to provide extra funding for the ailing School District. The mayor had made his second push for Council to pass a tax on sweetened beverages to fund the schools. Clarke proposed a property-tax hike instead, and, with the help of Councilman Bill Green, he won over a reluctant Councilman Bill Greenlee by making sure the sick-days bill passed muster.
During Council's recent struggles over redistricting, Clarke seemed to play a secondary role in the drawing of new maps. But once the proposals surfaced, he seemed to be everywhere at once, working his colleagues in the hallways outside Council and eventually helping to broker an agreement. In the process, he thwarted an alternate plan supported by rival Tasco and bolstered his own credibility as a leader.
There are tactics, of course, and then there's strategy. Some of Clarke's legislation over the years has drawn criticism for lacking the latter — in particular, bills that imposed new gun-control restrictions in Philadelphia and that critics said were clearly trumped by state law. So far, judges have ruled against the regulations, despite considerable expense by the city in fighting for them.
The bigger question now is whether and how Clarke will move from tactical politics — "transactional politics," as one observer puts it — to the strategic politics of running the city's legislative body.
In his inaugural speech, Clarke outlined some of his priorities, among them a plan for "Development Districts" where certain city-owned land could be sold at 50 percent to 90 percent discounts.
Indeed, the disposition of vacant land — an issue dear to Clarke's own career thus far — will likely play a major role in Philadelphia politics in the coming year, and Council President Clarke will have a major say in how that plays out.
The Nutter administration is rumored to be circulating its own proposal for a long-delayed comprehensive vacant land policy. Meanwhile, Council members Green and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez have been pushing hard for the creation of a land bank, which would become a central repository of vacant land and, in theory, allow for land to be distributed in accordance with community needs.
Clarke's own proposal isn't quite either one of these. It might work hand in hand with the other two proposals, but it could also pose direct competition.
We'll learn whose approach wins out soon enough. Council will begin hearings on the city's budget in the spring. Whether President Clarke will, as the daily editorial sections hope, usher in with Nutter a new era of vision remains to be seen.
"With Darrell Clarke as president, there really is an opportunity for the mayor and Council to do a lot together. I know that's not the conventional wisdom," opines Councilman Bill Green, "but if the mayor and President Clarke agree on a policy, it will get done."
So far it's not clear exactly what those mutually beneficial policies would be.
Clarke hasn't articulated a sweeping agenda — but, argues Green, neither has Mayor Nutter. "What we're really lacking is a clear vision statement from the mayor," says Green. Without one, he says, the new Council, under Clarke's leadership, will create its own: "We will fill that vacuum."