How Did Philly Urbanists Do in 2016?
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.
SEPTA Key was a long time coming. A really, really long time. And while the kinks are still being worked out, the mere fact that it exists, and that it mostly works, is a major advance for the cause of mobility in 2016. Here’s how the city fared in some other areas.
Open Streets and Bike Infrastructure
Bring up bike lanes in 2016, a year when national politics has focused on much more dire issues, and you can almost hear the eyes start to roll. In a city with deep poverty, high crime, and poor public schools, issues like bike infrastructure can seem like petty quality-of-life causes for the already well-to-do. But consider the principle that underpins so much of the urbanist agenda: Public spaces should be designed to serve the maximum variety of people in the maximum number of ways. Try to argue with that.
This year, the city opened its first protected bike lanes in Northeast Philly and began conversations about whether to create a buffer for the already existing bike lanes on Spruce and Pine streets through Center City. There’s a growing consensus that traffic laws need to be enforced more rigorously. And the city held its first “free streets” event, which was a win for advocates who began lobbying for the event after Pope Francis’s visit shut down much of the city in 2015. (It was a win even if the only street that was really opened up was South Street.)
Preserving Historic Buildings
It was a mixed year for preservationists. Mayor Jim Kenney’s first budget kept funding flat for the Historical Commission, which is in charge of protecting the city’s historic assets. Some had hoped that Kenney would throw some money to the cause, given that he had proposed doing so when he was a councilman and had talked pretty passionately about preservation during his mayoral campaign.
But the mayor had other fish to fry, and the Historical Commission continued to squeak by on its meager allowance. Meanwhile, the tedious work of nominating individual buildings was taken up by black-clad private citizens like Oscar Beisert and advocacy groups like the Preservation Alliance, which is taking a more assertive approach to its work under the leadership of Paul Steinke, a former manager of Reading Terminal Market and City Council candidate.
Attention was focused on preservation again when Toll Bros. announced late in the summer that it was planning to tear down a handful of buildings on Jewelers Row. The buildings weren’t protected. Kenney tried to pressure the developers to preserve some aspects of the buildings, but it looks like they’re not paying much heed. Late in the year, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a bill she worked on with the administration that would create new administrative fees for permit review, potentially driving as much as $350,000 a year to the Historical Commission. Preservationists are glad for the attention, but not that thrilled about the funding method, which could make it more expensive for some historic building owners to work on their properties.
Planning and Zoning Appointments
Kenney appointed Anne Fadullon, a well-liked developer who worked for the Redevelopment Authority under former mayor Ed Rendell, to lead the city’s new Office of Planning and Development. But while some advocates had hoped the mayor would appoint professional planners to the Zoning Board of Adjustments, he stacked the board with union-friendly appointments. For chairman, Kenney tapped Jim Moylan, a Pennsport civic leader who also happens to be the chiropractor for John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.
Dougherty is the leader of electricians union Local 98 and was a major supporter of Kenney during the mayoral campaign. His home and offices were raided by the FBI over the summer, in connection with a still-murky investigation. Moylan’s house was raided too, and he resigned from the board three weeks later. There’s still been no evidence that Moylan — or Dougherty, for that matter — did anything wrong. But the episode reveals the risks of basing decisions about important appointments on your political allegiances.
Improving Parks and Rec Centers
In his first year, Kenney put all his political chips behind a soda tax with the intention of raising money to fund pre-K classes and an effort to improve parks, libraries, and recreation centers called Rebuild. He won the soda tax fight, and in November the William Penn Foundation announced that it would make its biggest grant ever — $100 million — to the Rebuild project. (The pre-K initiative is having a little more trouble getting off the ground.)
All told, the Rebuild project is a $500 million effort to fix up neglected public spaces. If it’s successful, the effort will provide Philly’s struggling neighborhoods with real civic assets, the kinds of places that can serve entire communities while catalyzing further improvements. But the project’s success hinges on whether the workforce that performs the improvements can be a reflection of the city’s communities, while traditionally construction crews have been largely white and male. The group that’s running the show says that it will prioritize minority representation when choosing contractors.
The initiative is popular, and everyone seems to agree on the goals. Powerful people like Council President Darrell Clarke have been watching the progress closely and raising questions about its administration. Politically, it will be an interesting story to follow next year. Kenney’s reputation — and the shape of Philadelphia’s public realm — will be determined by the project’s success.
Follow @jaredbrey on Twitter.