Kenney: Every Neighborhood Needs a Passyunk Ave.

The mayor-elect wants the city to invest in neighborhood commercial districts.

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney ran on a promise of ensuring that all Philadelphians, regardless of their zip codes, have the opportunity to succeed. How do you accomplish such a lofty goal as the mayor of the poorest big city in the country, whose local government is almost always strapped for cash? In a speech at a symposium on equitable development on Wednesday, Kenney reiterated that he believes investing in commercial corridors is a big part of the answer.

By bolstering a neighborhood strip, he said, “you begin to make it stable again and begin to grow the businesses, which gives people the opportunity to start their own businesses, which is awesome.” Additionally, he said, the city can work with nonprofits to create affordable housing “above those stores, restaurants and shops, so the neighborhood stays middle-class, while at the same time improving in housing values.”

At the event, it was clear that Kenney thinks commercial corridors are a highlight of urban living. He spoke excitedly about the up-and-coming Seventh Street in South Philly, the hipster icon Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, the eclectic Germantown Avenue in Northwest Philly, and, of course, the foodie paradise East Passyunk Avenue in his old neighborhood. As a Councilman, he said he helped transform it from a sleepy street, where businesses “wouldn’t take credit cards” and would “open at 11 … close at 4,” to the corridor that is now lauded by The New York Times and Food & Wine magazine today.

At least a dozen times this year, I’ve heard Kenney point to East Passyunk Avenue as a model of commercial corridor development. As far as I know, Kenney has no such talking point about strengthening businesses in Center City. It’s not that he doesn’t think Center City is important, he says. Rather, he believes that Center City has been getting a disproportionate amount of attention from the local  government for many years, and that it’s time for other neighborhoods to benefit from Philadelphia’s gains, too.

As Kenney spokesman Lauren Hitt explained after the symposium, “Jim is fully aware that continuing Center City’s recent progress is essential to the health of the city, and in no way will Center City be ignored in favor of commercial corridors. However, in the past, commercial corridors have been to some degree ignored in favor of Center City — and that’s the balance we’re trying to correct.”

Along with his proposal to expand pre-K, this is one of the most tangible ways that Kenney plans to ensure that residents’ lives are “not defined by [their] zip code.” His remarks drew praise from the likes of New Kensington CDC director Joanna Winchester and Project HOME president Sister Mary Scullion at the event.

Michael Nutter will be remembered as a mayor who promoted development in Greater Center City, much like Ed Rendell. John Street, on the other hand, is seen as a mayor who tried to revitalize Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Kenney is attempting to split the difference. Is that possible given the city’s limited resources?

Kenney plans on increasing government funding in some areas to enhance neighborhood corridors. For instance, he wants to expand the city’s Community Life Improvement Program in order to better clean up litter and punish property speculators. He’s also vowed to double funding for a city program that reimburses small businesses for making improvements to their storefronts.

But more money isn’t the only answer in Kenney’s mind. He said that improved coordination between city agencies, community development corporations and other nonprofits will go a long way toward invigorating neighborhood corridors. In a policy paper, his team said that “a 2009 report from Econsult found Philadelphia lagging behind because of [its] scattershot approach to corridor development.” Kenney has said he’ll develop a strategic plan to boost the city’s commercial strips, and even get the police department behind it: Cops will expand the use of foot patrols on Philadelphia’s corridors.

“Almost every day I am asked, ‘What am I going to do on a particular problem?'” he said on Wednesday. “What are we going to do? Because everyone looks to government for the final answers to everything, when, in fact, the answers lie in the brains and the work of the people sitting in this room. The mayor and the government needs to be facilitators.”

Then Kenney broke out another one of his tried-and-true talking points: “A good mayor is a good point guard — understands the offense, calls the plays, makes all the players on the team look good, and the team wins.”