How Philly-Based Five Below Became a Billion-Dollar Company

Five Below CEO Joel Anderson, who oversees the company’s 523 stores | Photograph by Christopher Leaman

Five Below CEO Joel Anderson, who oversees the company’s 523 stores | Photograph by Christopher Leaman

Twenty minutes to go until a brand-new Five Below is scheduled to open its doors, and the line is already 30 people deep.

It’s a cold Friday morning at the beginning of November, and on the drive to the Roosevelt Boulevard shopping center where this grand opening is scheduled, I have a pretty clear picture of what the store is going to look like. I’ve been to a handful of these stores in the past few weeks, and I know the new one will be rectangular and fluorescent and packed with merchandise, like the chamber of one of those claw-machine games at the bowling alley.  Read more »

Toomey Backs Sessions for Attorney General, Despite Protests

Tuesdays with Toomey

Demonstrators outside Senator Pat Toomey’s office in Center City | Photo by Jared Brey

The Tuesday-afternoon crowd outside Republican Senator Pat Toomey’s office in Center City is growing by the week.

Since the election, when Toomey beat Democratic challenger Katie McGinty as Republicans swept elections across the country, a group, mostly women, has been gathering at Toomey’s Philadelphia office to advocate for various causes. In December, they protested Toomey’s attempts to punish so-called sanctuary cities, including Philadelphia. Last week, they pressured him to vote against the confirmation of Scott Pruit, president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. On Tuesday, they asked Toomey to oppose former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions’s appointment as U.S. Attorney General at the same time the Senate was holding his confirmation hearing. Read more »

D.A. Candidate Donates $250,000 to Own Campaign, Triggering “Millionaire’s Provision”

Left: Michael Untermeyer via Facebook, Right: Seth Williams, photo by Matt Rourke, Associated Press

Left: Michael Untermeyer via Facebook, Right: Seth Williams, photo by Matt Rourke, Associated Press

On Monday, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics announced that Michael Untermeyer, one of five candidates hoping to unseat Seth Williams as district attorney later this year, had donated more than $250,000 of his own money to his campaign effort.

A self-directed donation of that size triggers the so-called “millionaire’s provision” in the local campaign finance law, automatically raising the limit on campaign donations from individuals and political committees. Now, donations will be capped at $6,000 for individuals and $23,800 for political committees, up from $3,000 and $11,900, respectively. The new limits will hold even if Untermeyer quits the race or his campaign returns a portion of his donation, according to an Ethics Board advisory. Read more »

How Did Philly Urbanists Do in 2016?

SEPTA Key

There was a time, not so long ago, when getting on the subway or the bus in Philadelphia was frequently an ordeal.

What would you do if you didn’t have exact change or a token? You would go to an ATM. You would pay a fee to take out cash. And you’d buy something, like a drink or a pack of gum, in order to get the right change. The whole routine could easily double the cost of a fare while slowing down travel time and contributing mightily to commuter rage.

But over the last year, as SEPTA began to roll out its new payment technology and allow riders to buy “quick trips” with a credit or debit card, and especially since SEPTA Wallet has come into use, things have begun to change for the better. Lately I have been able to load my SEPTA Wallet from the comfort of my own home, then walk outside and get on the train or bus of my choice. This has improved my life in small but meaningful ways. It has put a pep in my colleague Dan McQuade’s step too. I know we aren’t alone. Now, if I find that I’m in an angry mood before I even get to work, it’s only because I chose to look at Twitter and not because the city’s transit system is inexplicably stuck in a different century. Read more »

State Rejects Philly’s Bid to Expand Tax-Free Zones to Logan Triangle, West Philly

Development projects are planned for Logan Triangle (L) and the former University City High School (R).

Development projects are planned for Logan Triangle (L) and the former University City High School (R).

Over the summer, as the dust began to settle on another Pennsylvania budget negotiation, officials in Philadelphia’s Commerce Department realized that the state had opened the door for an expansion of Keystone Opportunity Zones, a program that’s meant to encourage investment in vacant and blighted areas by waiving certain state and local taxes. Read more »

Why Do Philly Socialists See an Opportunity in the Age of Trump?

Bernie Sanders supporters protest at City Hall during the DNC on July 28, 2016. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Bernie Sanders supporters protest at City Hall during the DNC on July 28, 2016. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I left work on a recent Thursday and walked a few blocks to the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street, where a handful of socialist groups had convened a last-minute panel discussion on the topic of “Socialism Under Trump.

I guess I’d expected the signup sheets and the free literature on the folding tables near the doors. And I wasn’t too surprised by the sober discussions of strategy and organizing and coalition-building that unfolded over the next two hours as panelists diagnosed the collapse of Democratic centrism and discussed how to respond to the growth of right-wing xenophobia. I hadn’t thought so many people would be there, though. The room wasn’t overflowing, by any stretch, but it didn’t look empty either. Crowd estimation is a fraught affair, but suffice it to say that it was a solid enough gathering to complicate a deportation raid or shut down traffic on 676. Read more »

Sidewalk Safety, Salary Secrecy Bills Help Close Out City Council’s 2016

City Council Entrance

City Council wrapped up its fall session on Thursday in much quieter fashion than the spring, when Council members were debating details of Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed soda tax until the very last minute.

The scuttlebutt about the last few months in City Council, as Ryan Briggs wrote yesterday in City & State, is that legislative business was overtaken by the presidential election — and if you’re somebody who thinks Council passes too many laws, you could see that quiet as a good thing. But Council did manage to pass a handful of important bills and get started on more legislation for the next session. Here are a few.

Salary Secrecy
Council passed a bill on Thursday that would prevent employers from asking job applicants about their salary history. The bill is meant to work against the perpetuation of pay discrepancies that hurt women and people of color, according to the sponsor, Bill Greenlee. Employers should base their compensation offers on what they believe the job is worth, Greenlee told the Inquirer, and not what the applicant has earned at previous jobs. Mayor Kenney plans to sign the bill, according to the Inquirer.

No ‘Conversion Therapy’ for Minors
Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill on Thursday that would outlaw “conversion therapy” for anyone under the age of 18. Conversion therapy is a practice that is meant to change a patient’s sexual orientation. It has historically incorporated a variety of medical and psychological treatment methods. The American Psychological Association says that conversion therapies have not been proven to be effective or ineffective, and frowns on any practice that assumes that homosexuality or bisexuality is something other than “a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.”

“This bill sends the necessary and clear message to all Philadelphians that ‘conversion therapy’ is a deceptive term for an unacceptable practice that employs psychological abuse, rejection and shame. No young person anywhere, and certainly not in Philadelphia, should be subjected to torture for who they are or who they love,” Squilla said in a press release.

Low-Bid Contracts
Council approved a bill that would let the city select the “best value” rather than the lowest bid when giving out contracts, as City & State reports. Council sponsors, including Bobby Henon, say the bill gives the city flexibility to choose a contractor who will provide the best work at the best cost, rather than requiring it to choose the contractor whose bid is simply the lowest. In an op-ed in the Inquirer, former deputy managing director Jay McCalla said the bill could open the door for cronyism and back-room deals, while the lowest-bidder requirement keeps contracting above board. Henon and other Councilmembers believe it’s a necessary reform. Even with the change, the city will still be able to use “lowest responsible bidder” as a contract option, with “best value” being used in an estimated 5 percent of contracts initially, according to Henon’s office. The proposal will require a change to the Home Rule Charter and the approval of voters.

Sidewalk Safety
PlanPhilly reports that councilmembers Mark Squilla and Helen Gym introduced a bill meant to improve sidewalk safety. Before he was mayor, Jim Kenney sponsored a law that requires developers and contractors who are seeking sidewalk-closure permits to first demonstrate that a covered sidewalk is not feasible. The new bill extends that requirement to partial sidewalk closures. It also requires applicants to explore other protected-sidewalk possibilities if a covered walk is not possible.

“There needs to be an incentive for pedestrian safety and there needs to be a disincentive for blocking both sidewalks and traffic lanes,” Gym told PlanPhilly. “It shouldn’t be easy or cheap to do. We think a covered walkway would be the most ideal situation, as it both protects pedestrians and doesn’t take up a lane of traffic. If a developer isn’t able to do that they have to prove why they can’t. We want to make sure they don’t just sit on the project for a really long time.”

Follow @jaredbrey on Twitter.

Is This Bizarre Video Featuring Kurt Vile and Connor Barwin … Art?

I just watched this video, in which Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Connor Barwin and Philadelphia guitar-rock master Kurt Vile advertise Vile’s New Year’s Eve show at the Fillmore in Fishtown as well as some new tour dates and the New Year’s Day football game between the Eagles and the Cowboys. I have to say: This might be art. Read more »

Philly Developers ‘Terrified,’ ‘Intrigued’ to Have One of Their Own As President

AP Photo/John Minchillo URN:23754236

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Real estate developers tend to have a funny relationship to politics. On the one hand, they often flood local elections with campaign donations and relentlessly lobby for policies that will make their work easier and more profitable. On the other hand, they need friends in government in order to make deals and get important approvals, so their public political statements are usually diplomatic, calculated to achieve a certain result without offending anyone powerful.

President-elect Donald Trump, who started his career as a real estate developer, fits that mold in some ways and smashes it in others. While his pronouncements are calculated for advantage, they are also routinely offensive, though more often to the powerless than the powerful. And in some respects—his bombast, his ego, his unembarrassed pursuit of profit and tacky opulence—he provides the world with a cartoon picture of the stereotypical real estate man.

I was curious how some of Philadelphia’s more prominent developers felt about having one of their own in the White House, so I asked a few. Philadelphia is, of course, a Democratic Party town, and for the most part, these developers’ comments echoed the sort of restrained, cautious acceptance we’ve seen from prominent Democratic officials in the wake of the election. But in many instances, I detected an undercurrent of despair.

“The public perception of real estate developers, as a result of Trump’s ascension to the Presidency, has already changed,” said Ken Weinstein, a Germantown developer and owner of the Trolley Car Diner. “More than a few people, upon learning that I am a developer, have already asked if I pay taxes, if I stiff my subcontractors and how many times I have filed for bankruptcy (yes, no and zero).  Most developers are ethical business people so using Trump as an example of a typical real estate developer is not accurate.”

“I think he has developed many abysmal projects with little thought given to the value of community impact or design,” said Lindsey Scannapieco, who owns the former Bok Technical High School, one of the biggest buildings in South Philadelphia, which not been free of controversy. “However, I hope that his push on infrastructure investment provides momentum for thoughtful and important re-investments that create a more equitable landscape across the country.” Read more »

Council Members Push to Protect More of Philly’s Historic Architecture

The three buildings at left in this photo are the ones Toll Brothers has acquired in connection with its plan to build a mixed-use residential-retail structure in the heart of Jewelers’ Row. | Photo: Oscar Beisert

The three buildings at left in this photo are the ones Toll Brothers has acquired in connection with its plan to build a mixed-use residential-retail structure in the heart of Jewelers’ Row. | Photo: Oscar Beisert

A bill introduced in City Council on Thursday morning could end up nearly doubling the budget of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, a small department charged with protecting the city’s historic architecture that preservationists say has barely enough resources to do its most basic jobs.

The bill, introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown and co-sponsored by Mark Squilla and Al Taubenberger, and supported by the Kenney administration, would enact fees for permits that need to be reviewed by the Historical Commission. Commission staff currently must sign off on building, alteration, and demolition permits that affect historic properties and districts. That work takes up the vast majority of staff time, leaving little time left over to identify and designate historic properties, as the commission’s director, Jon Farnham, has acknowledged. Read more »

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