5 Philly Problems Solved

We asked a diverse selection of smart Philadelphians to troubleshoot some of our city’s most pressing problems (plus a few that are less pressing, but still pesky). And they did. City Council, are you reading this?

Problem: East Market looks like Beirut after the war.

Solution: Aesthetic TLC and smart new branding.

‘‘East Market commits two of the worst crimes in a city: It’s ugly, and it’s boring. What it wants more than anything is some visual consistency linking its mega-pharmacies, shuttered storefronts and louche malls into some kind of narrative. I’d ask the Center City District and DesignPhiladelphia to collaborate on a program targeting store signage and interior design. Programs like Commerce Design Montreal, copied in dozens of other cities, have given grants to local store owners, engaging them in a competition for employing architects and designers to renovate storefronts. Participating businesses are listed on a widely distributed map, which helps generate foot traffic. It’s a boon for the economy and for visually blighted areas.

Imagine such a renovation of the Gallery. The Gallery has a classic 1970s logo, second only to the LOVE logo for its iconic value. Make store owners pack shoppers’ goodies in Gallery bags imprinted with the logo. Renovate that 1980s teal-and-fuchsia color scheme. Rather than urge it to go upscale, make a statement about how good design and cheap goods can go together.

Installing casinos or other schemes to radically change the neighborhood will only further segregate where different classes shop and play, and increase the sense of placelessness. Change the aesthetics of the street-level experience, and stores here will find a whole new market.’’
Diana Lind, editor-in-chief, Next American City.

Problem: Our cabs suck.

Solution: Merit-based taxi medallions.

‘‘Cabs are literally the gateway to the Philadelphia experience. And ours are dirty, cramped. It’s like stepping into a salvage yard for a few minutes of the day.

To have a coveted medallion that authorizes a cab in Philly is $300,000 to $400,000. Drivers spend a lot of their income leasing the medallion. Instead of being able to reinvest profits into better cabs (with better A.C.), they’re barely getting by. Drivers feel stuck—they’d love to buy the medallion and be their own boss; it would give them pride in their cab (read: keep it cleaner, upgrade), but they just can’t afford it. No pride of ownership, low wages and low job satisfaction equals mean cab drivers and old equipment.

Let’s replace the old medallion system with a test, and select our drivers based on their knowledge of city streets and destinations, their communication skills, and the quality of their cars.’’
Neil Shah, president and COO, Hersha Hospitality Trust.

Problem: Great employers have good jobs going unfilled, but unemployment remains high.

Solution: Community-based training for community-based jobs.

‘‘There’s no easy answer to Philly’s job crisis, but there is an approach that works: University City District’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative connects neighborhood residents to neighborhood jobs. We work with the universities and health systems to identify entry-level positions of high need and growth potential, and develop training programs designed specifically for each job. We recruit unemployed local residents through community organizations into these ‘career pipelines,’ and coach participants for up to six months to hone their skills.

It’s changed the lives of scores of West Philadelphians in the past year, and the $10,000 or so that it costs to train each person is paid back almost immediately to the public sector through a broadened tax base and to the private sector through reduced turnover and search costs.

What if other community groups could replicate this and connect people in their neighborhoods to good jobs? What if we could collectively work each year with a thousand Philadelphians living just blocks from anchor institutions and bridge the skills gap? We’d have a more prosperous city for residents seeking work and a more competitive one for employers seeking talent.’’
Matt Bergheiser, executive director, University City District.

Problem: Ridiculous amounts of garbage in the streets.

Solution: (Artistic) shaming.

‘‘The ‘unlitter us’ campaign tries to make it seem that if you don’t litter, you’re super cool—but when you try too hard to make something look cool, it ends up not being cool. Let’s make people feel like assholes for littering. The city could hire a local graffiti or stencil artist to stencil a good, snarky design on the gutters and on trash cans to remind people how uncool, how classless, it is to be a litterbug. Also: Let’s consider fines. Property owners should be fined by the city if they don’t sweep in front of their property, or pull weeds, or tie up their trash properly.’’
Megan Brewster and Erin Waxman, owners, Art Star Gallery and Boutique.

Problem: No job growth … and misguided taxing.

Solution: Lower the wage tax, raise the job growth.

‘‘For Philadelphia to have a higher-than-national-average poverty level and a lower-than-average employment growth rate is a situation that cries for change. Philadelphia has lost almost 30 percent of its jobs since the 1970s. And Philadelphia, unlike most major cities, generates a significant percentage of its revenue from taxing things that are mobile—that is, employees and their employers. Most cities tax commercial and residential real estate more and employees and business less. Philly now faces a seminal moment on shifting its tax base. Its top priority should be changing the trajectory of job growth. The multiplier effect from a job is tremendous—more demand for retail, hotel rooms, parking and increased property values. Just as important are the qualitative positives of having a job: People feel better and contribute more to their neighborhoods, and the entire city benefits.

Creating a robust job platform is the city’s best possible social program. Taxing policy must reduce our stubbornly high structural unemployment rate, create sustainable job growth, and enable the city to invest in its neighborhoods.

The city can achieve these goals through effective implementation of AVI combined with programmed reduction in wage and business taxes. Wage taxes going down, jobs being created and real estate taxes rising with increased values resets our economic platform and ensures a successful future. Over time, that’s an effective tradeoff to everyone’s benefit.’’
Jerry Sweeney, president, Brandywine Realty Trust.