Source: The Next American City
Date: May 2004
Byline: Gregory Heller

We Want a Victory for Philadelphia

Capturing the Potential of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative

One evening in June of 2002, several hundred residents filed into the auditorium of Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia. Most were old, many were poor, and almost all were black. Many of them were tired, but they had not given up hope and were not done fighting.

Strawberry Mansion has one of the highest vacancy rates in the city, but it also retains a rich architectural and cultural heritage. In addition to its namesake, the 1789 Strawberry Mansion, the neighborhood includes a remarkable collection of Victorian houses, some designed by the firm of renowned architect Frank Furness. Jazz legend John Coltrane lived in Strawberry Mansion.

An array of planners and other city officials greeted the residents. They hoped to help these residents create a new, blight-free future. The Mayor’s proposed plan included the demolition of 84 houses in the area, as part of the first round of over 1000 demolitions citywide. As the meeting began, it became clear that the residents were not ready to plan a new beginning; instead they were there to fight the demolitions with all their might.

One planner explained, “All properties have been inspected and are deemed as health and safety hazards.” A resident replied, “We would like a second opinion on certain properties. We have done our homework.” Hours later the debate on demolitions continued. One resident asked, “Why don’t we acquire the houses and fix them up instead of demolishing them?” Another added, “I think a lot of architecturally important buildings here are marketable.” When debate became particularly contentious, Councilman Darrell Clark took the podium in an attempt to quiet the angry crowd.

A year later, during the second round of condemnations, the community continued to fight the demolition of housing. A Philadelphia Inquirer headline from June 12, 2003, reads, “More Protests To Accompany Anti-Blight Effort’s 2nd Phase: North Philadelphia Residents Say Their Properties Are Being Unfairly Taken For the City’s Neighborhood Initiative.” Such was the kickoff of Philadelphia’s long-awaited, highly ambitious, very expensive, often misunderstood, and always contentious program: NTI — the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

Dealing with Abandonment

In April 2001, following his first election, Mayor John Street launched NTI to deal with the city’s declining neighborhoods. Thousands of abandoned houses pepper the city. Some are safety hazards; others are in rough neighborhoods where, arguably, the cost of restoring them cannot be justified. Maxine Griffith, Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, explains that abandonment is natural in a city that has dropped from a peak population of 2.5 million to 1.4 million today.

The premise of NTI is to accept this population loss as a fact and plan for a smaller city while providing new opportunities for redevelopment of the large, multi-block parcels that big developers crave. Through NTI, the city acquires abandoned properties and lots, demolishes the houses, and builds up a land bank of empty tracts. Then it waits for private developers to demonstrate interest in developing these tracts. Hopes for development depend on a burst of private interest in a community. NTI targets 34 neighborhoods, based on a $1.6 billion budget for its first five years.

The recent history of development in Philadelphia raises serious questions about tearing down abandoned buildings. Many neighborhoods across the city that were marginal or failing ten years ago are now resurgent and regaining population. In Northern Liberties, artists and young people rediscovered a historic industrial neighborhood. Entrepreneurs opened a handful of shops and restaurants and developed loft apartments. Today, every abandoned structure is undergoing renovation. In West Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania created a mortgage program to entice professors to buy nearby historic homes. It invested its money in the local economy, making the neighborhood safer and improving the schools. Today “University City” is vibrant and ethnically and socially diverse.

Parkside is perhaps the most vivid example. Developer James Brown partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, lobbied for the neighborhood’s designation as a National Historic District, and slowly rehabilitated house after derelict house. Today he has restored the entire row of historic mansions along the park and rents them at affordable rates. The city is installing a light rail line through the area, and the Please Touch Museum is moving into the 1876 Memorial Hall and paying for its restoration. According to Brown, other developers are interested in the area because they now see its potential.

There are many other examples of revitalized neighborhoods across the city: East Falls, Manayunk, Mount Airy, Fishtown, South-of-South, Bella Vista. These areas vastly differ from one another in many ways. Some are gentrifying while others remain relatively stable demographically. In some areas, one person or institution invests capital. Others are rekindled by the spillover effects of an adjacent neighborhood’s transformation. But what brings all of Philadelphia’s success stories together is that in every case the transformation came about because of a rediscovery of a neighborhood’s particular assets, which more often than not center on its historic buildings. Farah Jimenez, Executive Director of the Mount Airy U.S.A. community development corporation, cites one example: despite her neighborhood’s struggling main street along Germantown Avenue, the historic houses are “the reason people are staying.”

Another factor unites all of Philadelphia’s success stories: none of these transformations resulted from NTI-type strategies of clearing out large tracts for redevelopment.

Demolition Derby

Since its inception, citizens and the press have criticized NTI for its focus on demolition. According to Victoria Mason-Ailey, the Planning Commission’s Director of Community Planning, “In some instances we’ve even dropped the reference to NTI, because it is perceived as being offensive.” Although the Planning Commission develops comprehensive community plans, it works independently of NTI. Mason-Ailey remarks, “We’re separating planning from demolition. We don’t deal with demolition.” This rift between the planning agency and the NTI office adds to the perception that NTI is just about tearing things down. Claire Robertson-Kraft, an intern at the Philadelphia Reinvestment Fund, a community development loan fund involved in NTI, spoke to residents over the summer of 2003 to learn what they thought about the Mayor’s program. “NTI wasn’t properly communicated to the neighborhoods,” Robertson-Kraft says. “Residents didn’t know what NTI was until they were handed a paper saying their house was being condemned.”

In Strawberry Mansion, residents successfully lobbied their councilman to remove buildings from the NTI demolition list. The city previously claimed these buildings were imminently dangerous, leaving no choice but to tear them down. Where NTI has actually demolished buildings, it has left, strewn across Philadelphia’s poor neighborhoods, barren gaps in rows of buildings and empty lots bordered by the city’s wooden fences, waiting for a developer to show interest.

The empty lots could lie waiting for a long time. The Westrum Company, traditionally a suburban developer, recently committed to building 200 new housing units in the Brewerytown neighborhood. Although the city has assisted Westrum in overcoming barriers to development, the project predates NTI. Robert Rosenthal, Westrum’s Vice President of Business Development, says that his company saw an “anti-sprawl” trend starting about four years ago and believed the city held potential. “Brewerytown has several assets,” Rosenthal explains. “We have Fairmount Park on one side, and [the recently revitalized] Fairmount neighborhood on the other.” Rosenthal continues, “We are market rate developers and we were looking for areas where we thought building would work without subsidies.” When asked whether he saw investment potential in many of the city’s rundown areas that NTI wants to reclaim, Rosenthal answered, “I drive through certain areas and say, ‘I don’t know when they will come back’… Many of them will stay barren for many years.”

Rose Gray, Director of Real Estate Development for Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Inc., a nonprofit community development corporation in North Philadelphia, questions the city’s ability to attract private developers to many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. She claims, “For-profit developers won’t come into a devastated area.” In fact, the development that she spearheaded is highly subsidized and uses substantial state funding specific to nonprofit development. Some developers like James Brown are far-sighted and see the potential in a physically rundown area. Most are not.

Learning from Success

Looking at Philadelphia’s success stories, it is difficult not to conclude that revitalization depends on a neighborhood’s ability to reach the tipping point, a phenomenon first explored, as it relates to violent crime in New York, by New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell in a 1996 article and further elaborated in his 2000 book. According to Gladwell, policymakers must consider the possibility that “social problems behave like infectious agents.” In epidemiology, the tipping point refers to “the point at which an ordinary and stable phenomenon … can turn into a public health crisis.” Applied to neighborhood revitalization, the tipping point might be the number of dilapidated houses or broken windows that lead to inevitable neighborhood deterioration.

The reverse of the tipping point is when people start to believe that a neighborhood is livable and even desirable. Individuals interested in revitalization must introduce sufficient housing rehabilitation and commercial activity to fight the tipping point and prove to the private market that there is potential in an area. For example, Brown came into Parkside before anyone believed its revitalization was possible. He restored historic buildings, brought in institutions, and lobbied for improved transit. Now, though some dilapidated houses remain, other people see the potential that initially only he could. Private developers are interested where they see potential profitability; unfortunately, none currently see that quality in the neighborhoods that need transformation the most.

Instead of trying to clear the way for developers in 34 undesirable neighborhoods, the city should focus on helping neighborhoods defeat the tipping point. The city does not have to invest in a complete revitalization, but rather in targeted efforts to reveal the development potential of two or three neighborhoods. If the city can demonstrate that NTI succeeded in one neighborhood, developers will see the same and will be more likely to invest sooner.

NTI’s Estimated Five-Year Budget allocates $160 million for demolition and $50 million — one-third of the amount allocated for demolition — for housing rehabilitation and preservation. Given the important role of the rediscovery of historic buildings in recent neighborhood revitalizations, demolition should not be NTI’s focus. Rehabilitating even a small number of houses near each other, coupled with investment in infrastructure and other assets, could profoundly change the image of a neighborhood.

Drawing on the experience of Parkside’s revitalization, James Brown explains, “You would look to see what is in the general area that you’re interested in. What does the area have that would be considered assets? Something to build upon.” Brown identified several assets: the historic houses, the zoo, and Fairmount Park. He was instrumental in bringing the Please Touch Museum into long abandoned Memorial Hall. He also lobbied the city to place a rail stop at the zoo. He aided the restoration of an old Negro-League baseball diamond and commissioned a statue, turning the diamond into a landmark.

The University of Pennsylvania became the anchor for University City, but there are other assets too: a farmers’ market, a park, distinctive Victorian architecture, and convenient major transit lines. The University invested in a commercial corridor, local safety, and improvements in transit stops. In another area, Bella Vista’s revitalization has taken off recently, based around the major asset of Philadelphia’s Italian Market. In each of these neighborhoods the approach was similar — find a way to push the area back over the tipping point. At the same time, each neighborhood is different and requires a custom-tailored approach that responds to particular assets, people, and opportunities. There is no cookie-cutter way to revitalize a neighborhood.

The spillover from the success of the Fairmount neighborhood was one of Rosenthal’s reasons for developing in Brewerytown. Given the increasing difficulty of finding affordable housing in Northern Liberties, people are now moving to Fishtown, the next neighborhood north. Developers may not believe Strawberry Mansion can support market-rate housing now, but Rosenthal muses, “perhaps Strawberry Mansion won’t have so much blight soon because of what we’re doing in Brewerytown…You have to look at building as a domino effect.”

We Want a Victory for Philadelphia

One of John Street’s first actions as mayor was to clear 32,852 abandoned cars from city streets, to great applause from his constituents. NTI is a cousin of his car removal program: instead of removing cars, it removes houses. The difference is, if you remove a car the problem is gone. Abandoned houses are not the cause of blight; they are its physical evidence. The causes run much deeper.

Farah Jimenez believes that commercial development is the key to revitalization. “The city has funds for investing in economic development projects to create incentives for businesses to relocate,” she says. Aside from creating jobs, commercial development, like rehabilitated housing, gives the appearance of success and attracts people to visit the neighborhood. “You create a lot of energy and excitement and bring people in when you have great restaurants and retail shops,” Jimenez adds.

While the city may be able to cheaply knock down a lot of houses, it cannot afford to simultaneously fix the underlying problems in every neighborhood at once. Parkside’s James Brown praises NTI for focusing on neighborhoods but believes its efforts are too spread out. NTI is not making “the kind of progress people can see,” he says. Seated in an armchair in his beautifully restored Victorian house, Brown looks out of his window at another old mansion he restored and muses, “I’d like to hear someone in the administration say, ‘We want victory for Philadelphia. We’re going to have it somewhere,’ and just decide where they want to have a major victory showing what this city can do.”

NTI has made some efforts in that direction. According to Jacob Fisher, an NTI Policy Analyst, NTI is now working with the Historical Commission to find alternatives to wholesale demolition. It is stabilizing properties in blocks that have just a few vacant houses. It is also implementing a program in which city officials and community leaders decide which buildings will be demolished instead of allowing the Department of Licenses and Inspections to make the decisions.

Unfortunately, due to the program’s operation to date and the press’s portrayal of it, the public understands NTI as a demolition program. Without local support, NTI will continue to be held up by community opposition. “It takes many, many partnerships to rebuild a community,” Rose Gray says emphatically. “And the community has to want it… Having the community buy in is really essential.”

Community leaders have a great deal of power to change negative perceptions of their neighborhoods. Trying to gauge the success of revitalization, one can look at population gains or housing prices, but ultimately the only thing stopping people from moving somewhere, or developers from building somewhere, is their perception of the place. Instead of reading that a thousand houses were demolished, their land banked for developers who have yet to show interest, Philadelphians need to actually see an area come back to life to get excited about NTI. A few more successes like Parkside and Northern Liberties would mean a real victory for Philadelphia — the first of many.