Lesson from the neighborhood (Source: Philadelphia Inquirer Date: June 27, 2007 Byline: Gregory Heller)

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 27, 2007
Byline: Gregory Heller

Lesson from the neighborhood

Phila. needs to learn from the successes and failures of NTI.

For the last eight years, the City of Philadelphia has placed a priority on community investment through its Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI). The program’s successes and failures offer valuable lessons for the next mayoral administration.

Neighborhood investment is the best long-term strategy for combating crime, improving our schools, and attracting businesses, jobs, and residents. The need to invest in neighborhoods is clear, but the city should incorporate a different vision and focus.

NTI shifted the city’s priorities to look seriously at community reinvestment. It started a process of acquiring delinquent properties, demolished some dangerous buildings and, with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, greened numerous lots.

However, while NTI’s focus is on target, it has major flaws. The funds were divided up by City Council, rather than spent in a coordinated manner. NTI focused too heavily on demolition. Too few properties were land-banked. The premise that clearing lots in the city’s worst neighborhoods would attract private development often did not produce results.

Perhaps NTI’s greatest weakness is that it has been too spread out — focusing on dozens of neighborhoods, targeting only one problem at a time.

Philadelphia’s next mayoral administration should adopt a fresh approach that targets a few neighborhoods, looking at each individually, and investing strategically in a coordinated range of elements that together will make a larger impact.

We have seen some valuable success stories of how neighborhoods can be turned around this way. Center City and areas such as East Falls, Fairmount, Manayunk, Mount Airy, Northern Liberties, South of South, and University City have seen remarkable revitalizations in population, business and growth. This was not an accident, rather the hard work of civic, community development and business improvement groups.

These efforts show that we need a major change in focus. Instead of looking at the problem of disinvestment from a citywide level, we need to take a neighborhood view. It does not matter to developers considering investing in a community, how many abandoned properties were demolished citywide. We cannot fix the entire city at once. Instead, we need to target key communities and focus on outcomes that will have a strong local impact, citywide benefit, and a flow-over effect on adjacent areas.

Revitalization happens when a combination of elements push a community over the tipping point, so outsiders believe there is potential for growth and renewal. The city should choose communities with some market potential, assets like historic housing, parkland or transit access, and invest in a targeted range of elements simultaneously.

These elements could include commercial-corridor grants, clean-and-green programs, historic rehabilitation, streetscape improvements, and strengthening connectivity. These investments should be made in partnership with local institutions, financial lenders, and community development organizations.

This type of strategic approach was perhaps most successful through the University of Pennsylvania’s community-investment efforts. Penn funded a business-improvement district, financed housing and commercial development, bolstered its local police force, strengthened transit access, and put money into the local school.

Together this range of specific elements leveraged significant outside investment, and pushed the community over the tipping point to where Penn could step away and let the market continue the revitalization.

No doubt, neighborhood reinvestment is expensive. However, the city does not have to bankroll the entire process. It should focus on the key elements that together will have the greatest impact in changing the image of a community and attracting outside investment.

The missing piece in Penn’s strategy, however, is affordability. If we truly want Philadelphia to succeed, we need to remain committed to two goals simultaneously: attracting new development, and empowering existing communities, keeping our neighborhoods affordable.

Critics say that we have plenty of affordable housing. Citywide the average home sale price is just $86,000. However, again, we have to stop looking at citywide figures, and start focusing on the neighborhood level. In a number of communities, sale prices are between $13,000 and $30,000, while in others, prices average more than $900,000. Our goal must be to have a range of housing options in every community.

We need policies like inclusionary zoning, requiring developers to build a percentage of affordable units in some market-rate projects. We need a true tax freeze or deferment program for low- and moderate-income homeowners. We need transition counseling to work with communities in flux. We need to fund more mixed-income and senior housing.

We cannot wait until our communities deteriorate beyond the point of renewal to think about reinvestment. Likewise we cannot wait until they become too expensive to start thinking about equitable development.

NTI steered Philadelphia to focus on its neighborhoods. Now it is time to create a more comprehensive program that utilizes proven strategies. Philadelphia has the potential to forge a new course, to make a resurgence in a way that empowers our existing communities. It is time to get started before it is too late.

Gregory Heller works as an urban planner in Philadelphia.