Anti-Growth Politics is a Luxury Philly Can't Afford in the Trump Era


While we haven't always agreed with Council President Darrell Clarke's politics in the past, we strongly agree with his sentiment that Philadelphia city government should look to use our existing resources better if we're expecting a hostile urban policy environment under the Trump administration and a conservative supermajority in the Pennsylvania legislature.

For context, Julia Terruso and Claudia Vargas talked to some former Mayors who gamed out the damage we might expect:

"Aside from the sanctuary cities threat, [former Mayor Wilson] Goode said that Trump, along with the Republican-controlled House and Senate, could prioritize the budget imbalance, which could cause Philadelphia to see "significant reduction in federal funding."

The city's general fund gets about $30 million in federal aid but tens of millions more flow to the city through grants for police, housing, human services, and other government programs."

House Speaker Paul Ryan and his colleagues have a plan to block-grant a lot of this funding to states, who tend to use block grants to replace other state spending and reduce service levels. And due to the political shift in Harrisburg, it will be harder for Philadelphia lawmakers to secure more total state revenue for local services and projects.

In recent years, such conversations have typically been resolved with Harrisburg conservatives allowing Philadelphia to tax ourselves more, but after several exhausting rounds of this we're close to running out of options. 

This is all to say that federal and state governments could conceivably blow a fairly large hole in Philadelphia's budget over the next few years, forcing painful service cuts or tax increases. Philly isn't currently prepared to pick up all of the slack for the services that residents need and want, but there are lots of things we could be doing to strengthen our local tax base over the medium term, and insure ourselves against city-hating state and federal regimes.

Funding the "moneymaker" departments

Council President Clarke is right that this situation calls for making the most of every tax dollar, and figuring out cheaper ways to deliver the same level of services. 

Clarke has a good point that spending more on the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L+I) and lead abatement either makes money for the City (in the case of L+I) or saves us money in the long run (in the case of lead, particularly with respect to corrections.)

Mayor Jim Kenney also argued as a Councilman that zoning remapping is a "moneymaker" for Philly because up-to-date zoning maps invite more private real estate investment. 

Right-sizing services

What other policy areas could we apply Clarke's logic to? Getting more bang for our buck also matters on the service and personnel side of government. 

To highlight one example, as Ryan Briggs reported at City Paper (RIP) back in 2014, New York City has two-person trash crews, whereas the work rules in Philadelphia labor contracts require three people per truck. When New York moved to two-person crews, there was a temporary 10% dip in service efficiency, but that effect faded quickly. They're now collecting as much trash with one-third less staff.

With two-person trash collection crews, we could potentially be getting a higher level of service, with the extra crew members redeployed to different jobs. Could we potentially bring back citywide street-sweeping services with no extra labor costs? We'd have to see the numbers, but these are the kinds of conversations that we need to be having now with every City department.

Zoning like the budget matters

It's not just about using tax dollars more efficiently, but all of Philadelphia's assets, and especially land.

A few years ago, the blog Strong Towns coined the term "Taco John's math" to show how traditional urban neighborhood development (attached rowhomes mixed with commercial storefronts) produces more tax revenue per acre than auto-oriented strip malls and detached single-family homes. 

In their example, a city block of older attached buildings that were in pretty bad shape still managed to deliver more property tax revenue on a per-acre basis to the city of Brainerd, MN than a new Taco John's drive-thru on a similarly-sized land parcel.

A report from Smart Growth America titled "Building Better Budgets" expounds on this argument, showing how mid-rise mixed-use buildings produce more tax revenue per acre than smaller multifamily buildings and townhouses; townhouses produce more revenue per acre than detached single-family homes and shopping centers. Joe Minicozzi at the consulting firm Urban3 has made a career out of showing local elected officials the light on the fiscal impact of their land use choices.


Philadelphia's urban grid and our traditional development pattern of attached mixed-use buildings is the greatest platform ever invented for creating real estate value, and if elected officials are interested in raising more revenue for their priorities without another property tax rate increase, then it's time to start thinking seriously about how we can get Philly's land to start producing more revenue for us.

The recent upzonings for the Rail Park area and the new overlay between Callowhill and Northern Liberties are great examples of how we can make better use of land near city assets like popular public spaces, high-frequency transit, and commercial corridors.

Council President Clarke, via Councilman Bill Greenlee, recently introduced another great zoning bill in this mold that would upzone North Broad Street just north of City Hall, along with a number of underused parcels in the northwest quadrant of Center City. 

But while elected officials have generally been supportive of stoking growth and mid-rise development within Center City proper for the sake of jobs and tax revenue, they've been much more squeamish about cashing in on growth even just outside those arbitrary boundaries. This is a political shibboleth we can no longer afford to prioritize.

For about 78% of Philadelphia properties, or half the city's zoned land area, the only type of building you can legally build without a variance is a single-use, single-family residence. 

Mixed-use residential and commercial properties--the kind that produce the most tax revenue per acre--are currently only allowed on 7.4% of the city's land area. Even increasing that number to 25% of city land area could unleash a massive amount of investment in the highest-yielding ratables, bolstering our property tax base. 


(Image: Kevin Hunter, originally published at PlanPhilly)

Leverage our commercial corridors and legacy transit infrastructure

Philly doesn't have to allow mid-rise development in every corner of every neighborhood, but there are places all across the city where it would make sense to encourage some more vertical growth. 

Specifically, every neighborhood could stand to have a somewhat denser "town center" develop around their existing commercial corridors (over 180 in total!), and City Council could also be doing much more to leverage our fixed guideway transit network to promote more transit-accessible housing development.

For starters, they could pass all of the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Overlay Districts that the Planning Commission has recommended in the Philadelphia 2035 plans, which would promote denser, low-car development patterns in quarter-mile zones around transit stations.


(Image: Philadelphia City Planning Commission)

The Fairmount Ave and Lombard South stops on the Broad Street Line, and the Spring Garden and Girard Avenue stops on the Market Frankford Line are the top priority overlays, but there's also been lots of planning work for Transit Revitalization Investment Districts around Cecil B. Moore near Temple, and 46th and Market in West Philly. 

Council could sign off on these overlays as soon as they want, and squeeze some more value out of our legacy transit infrastructure to build a stronger, Trump-proof city budget.

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2016-11-17 12:00:40 -0500