The Land Bank — a Supposed Big Fix for Delinquency and Blight — Is Sputtering

Photo credit: Julia Rowe via Flickr.

Photo credit: Julia Rowe via Flickr.

Two years ago this December, City Council created a Land Bank. It was a big deal. Or so it seemed at the time.

In theory, the Land Bank was a (partial) solution to a couple of huge, maddening, longstanding problems.

Huge Problem Number 1? Property tax delinquency. There’s no short-term silver bullet for a civic challenge this immense, but a Land Bank was supposed to help. The new entity has the power to seize tax delinquent properties without exposing those properties to a problematic (and slow) sheriff sale process.

Huge Problem Number 2? The inexplicable, self-defeating ownership structure the city now has in place for about 9,500 vacant lots and abandoned buildings across the city. Each of those parcels is publicly held, but they’re split between an array of agencies, which have land-sale policies that are both opaque and not at all consistent. All of which makes it much, much harder than it should be for those developers, non-profits and average Philadelphians that want to put city-owned vacant land back into productive use to actually do so.

The new Land Bank was supposed to help on both fronts. So far, it’s accomplished next to nothing on both.

Really. Almost two years after its formation, the Land Bank has title to virtually none of those huge holdings already in the city’s possession, and it’s not used its tax delinquent acquisition powers once. What gives? Read more »

Death at the Doorway of City Hall

Around 4:30 a.m. on Monday morning, two young visitors to Philadelphia in town for the Made in America concert were struck and killed by a taxi cab motoring down Broad Street.

According to NBC 10, witnesses said the pair were sent flying into the air before they landed on the pavement, just a block north of City Hall. Amanda Digirolomo, 25, of Phoenixville, was pronounced dead at the scene, according to reports. Bryan Botti, also 25, was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital, and declared dead shortly after.

The day before, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a damning story by Mark Fazlollah, documenting just how dangerous it can be to walk, drive or bike on the streets of Philadelphia. Read more »

LOOK: Gorgeous New Gates Going Up at City Hall


Photos by Patrick Kerkstra.

(Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to identify the correct original designer of the gates.)

It’s taken more than 14 years, but City Hall is finally getting a new front door. Four of them, in fact.

Check out the handsome, historically appropriate gates going up this week in the portals that lead to City Hall’s central courtyard. Pretty nice, huh? These were still under construction when we spotted them — one assumes those girders on either side of the gates will be hidden somehow.

Read more »

Will the “Ferguson Effect” Doom Police Reform?

There were demonstrations and tear gas in Ferguson after the summertime shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer. A grand jury will announce that officer's fate today.

Police in riot gear in Ferguson, 2014.

One big but often overlooked reason that Michael Nutter was elected mayor in 2007 was the tough tone he struck on crime and violence in the midst of a pretty terrifying crime wave.

There were 406 homicides in 2006, and 391 the year Nutter was elected. The violence — so tragically common in many distressed sections of the city — was spilling out into more affluent areas. Days before the November election, a masked man blazed through Center City in an SUV, shot four people (including a cop), crashed his vehicle and then drowned in the Schuylkill River while trying to escape.

People were freaked out. And while then Mayor Street dithered, Nutter offered action. He would declare a crime emergency. He vowed to introduce stop-and-frisk. He’d direct the police to concentrate on high crime areas, where police would have the power “to prohibit outdoor gatherings, limit the movement of vehicles, establish a curfew, and prohibit the possession of all weapons.”

From the vantage point of 2015, that’s pretty extreme stuff. I don’t bring it up to throw dirt on Nutter’s policing policy. He never followed through on a lot of that, actually, and there’s no debating the fact that crime has fallen considerably on his watch.

The point is this: policing and criminal justice policy are acutely — acutely — sensitive to current events. Read more »

Secret Service Releases Official Pope Security Map

Screenshot 2015-09-02 14.58.11

The United States Secret Service has just released a detailed map outlining security zones, screening points and pedestrian routes for Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia later this month.

They’re calling the document a “pedestrian walking map,” and it outlines pedestrian routes to all papal visit events for the weekend of September 26-27.

What’s new here? Plenty, really.

The security perimeter — er, make that the Francis Festival zone — will itself be split into two areas. The northwestern quadrant of the zone, where Francis will speak from, will be open only to ticket holders. The Secret Service’s announcement does not include information on how to obtain a ticket, or how many tickets will be made available. Read more »

Darrell Clarke’s School District Power Play


Left, Darrell Clarke. Right, Bill Hite. | Photos by City Council and Associated Press.

City Council President Darrell Clarke has grown profoundly frustrated with the School District of Philadelphia in recent years. Now he looks poised to turn that frustration into action — and the impact on the district could be huge.

In private and in public, Clarke in recent weeks has ratcheted up pressure on the district and the School Reform Commission. He’s laying the groundwork for a campaign — one that likely will begin in earnest after likely next mayor Jim Kenney takes office in January — that is designed to win back some local control over the district, particularly its finances.

What’s his latest beef? Ostensibly, it was over a number of recent hirings and promotions in the school district’s central offices, which, after three straight years of fiscal crisis, is now staffed by a skeleton crew. Seriously. The number of empty desks in the (admittedly too big) district headquarters at 440 N. Broad is both depressing and alarming.

Clarke’s point, though, is that Superintendent William Hite came to City Council in the spring seeking cash on account of the dire needs in classrooms, not district HQ. He says, in essence, that Council didn’t approve $70 million* in new funding for it to be spent on senior bureaucrats making six figures. Read more »

Council’s New Hires: $105K for a Graphic Designer & a Social Media Maven

Screenshot 2015-08-27 17.29.15

A sample of City Councils new graphic designer at work.

There’s no arguing that City Council could use a little help with its image. And it’s getting it, in the form of two relatively new staff positions in the Office of City Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

The hires? Anthony Buford, a full-time graphic designer, who was put on Council’s payroll in January, and Patricia Gillett, a full-time digital media director, hired in July. Their salaries are $50,000 and $55,000, respectively, plus generous city benefits.

Citified heard about the new positions this week, when council staffers were invited by the “Council Creative Team” to a “quick, 1-hour training course for finding, selecting and preparing photos for print and digital uses.” Also on the agenda? “A short introduction to the new City Council logo…” Read more »

$25 Million for City Schools, Suddenly in Doubt?

School District of Philadelphia

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Last spring, which feels like eons ago, City Council grudgingly agreed to increase funding to the School District of Philadelphia by $70 million. That was $30 million short of what the district was asking for, but $70 million really is a big round number, and it took a bevy of tax hikes — including a 4.5 percent hike in the property tax rate — to raise the funds.

City Council was grouchy in the extreme about coming up with that $70 million. So grouchy that it opted to hold onto $25 million of the $70 million — to be released to the district only when and if Council decided to do so.

Well, the school year hasn’t even begun, and Council President Darrell L. Clarke already has some real problems with what the district is doing; specifically Superintendent Bill Hite’s spending of $1 million on big new promotions and hires for central office administrators. Read more »

Next Year’s Starting City Hall Budget: $0

"I know that pension fund is in here somewhere." |

“I know that pension fund is in here somewhere.” |

Government budgets are a lot like basements: there’s really vital stuff in there, but plenty of crap as well. As the years grind on, the basement gets ever messier, ever more jammed and ever more unwieldy. What’s all that stuff for? Do we really need all of it? After a while, nobody really knows.

But who wants to sort it out? What a nightmare.

And yet, that’s exactly what Democratic mayoral nominee says he Jim Kenney intends to do if elected mayor in November. And if he’s upset by ultra-underdog GOP nominee Melissa Murray Bailey, well she plans to do the same.

Both are advocates of what’s called zero-based budgeting. It works like this: instead of creating a budget based on last year’s spending plan, as is the norm, city departments would have to start from scratch. With a zero-based budget, departments and agencies would be asked to articulate their mission and priorities, then justify every dollar they request based on how effectively a given program advances the mission.

Zero-based budgeting is not a particularly new idea, and it’s not a panacea for financially strained governments. It costs a lot of money to run a big city, and a new budget system can’t change that reality. But when done well — which is a big qualifier — zero-based budgeting can reduce wasteful spending, make government a bit more more efficient and help departments shed work they shouldn’t be doing, and focus more clearly on the stuff that matters most. Read more »

SEPTA Is Trying to Become More Bike Friendly

SEPTA Regional Rail is booming. Last year the service set a ridership record: 37.4 million trips were made last year. To meet demand, SEPTA is buying new locomotives and looking for bi-level railcars.

But there’s a bottleneck in the system: parking. The largely diminutive lots surrounding SEPTA’s regional rail stops in the suburbs are usually jammed.

One potential answer? Bikes. SEPTA’s 2016 budget includes $3 million for new bike infrastructure at 15 regional rail stations over the next three years, Next City reports. It’s one key element of the agency’s new Cycle-Transit plan, which aims to make SEPTA more convenient for the growing number of bicycle riders. As the plan puts it: Read more »

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