Once upon a time in West Philly, there was a street vendor who would set up shop every day on the same street corner.
But one day, he found that a local business had installed a bike rack on the corner, blocking his usual location.
The vendor then called Jannie Blackwell's 3rd District Council office to complain about this, and the Councilmember came up with the perfect archetype of a Philadelphia City Council solution:
She would personally approve every bike rack, planter, or street bench in her district.
And in the process, she would task all of the other nine District Councilmembers with the immensely time-consuming task of reviewing every last planter or bench someone might like to have, essentially grinding Council's other business to a halt.
This is actually the story behind the bill Councilmember Blackwell introduced last Thursday, which she quickly withdrew in response to public complaints.
The bill would have required a letter of approval from the District Councilmember before L+I could issue a permit to place anything on the sidewalk. Technically if you're a homeowner or a business wanting to put out some outdoor planters, you're supposed to get an L+I permit for that, but in practice not everybody does this. The practical impact would be to give each District Councilmember a lot of discretion to selectively enforce the law against locally unpopular benches and other outdoor decorations.
Thankfully, the bill was tabled in response to public pressure (a petition from 5th Square opposing the bill collected over 2,000 signatures), but constituents who called other members of Council's Streets committee reported hearing suggestions that the bill could be amended to apply only to commercial properties.
That would be an equally bad idea. It would mean fewer businesses investing in public space improvements in front of their shops. And it's all too easy to imagine this quickly devolving into a pay-to-play dynamic, with an unspoken assumption that business owners need to contribute to City Councilmembers' campaigns in order to get approval to put out flower pots.
Councilmember Blackwell has so many enormous issues to work on in her District. She represents some of the highest-poverty areas of the city, along with several rapidly growing universities and health care institutions eyeing significant expansions. The 3rd District has a major transit planning lift on the horizon with trolley modernization, and several struggling commercial corridors in need of planning and zoning work that hasn't been happening.
But sadly, it seems the Councilmember would rather waste all her time on trivial provincial concerns than take on the challenges of these big-picture issues where the 3rd District could really use some strong political leadership.
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