Last week was Part 1 of my interview with community activist Vern Anastasio, where we talked about some of the steps that need to be taken to promote true zoning and development reform in Philadelphia. The interview continues in Part 2:
I was alarmed to read about the recent rulings that stripped taxpayers and certain citizen associations of standing to appeal zoning decisions. How do these decisions upset the climate for meaningful zoning reform?
There’s a long history with this. Back in 2001, City Council tried to shove Bill 629, which was later called the billboard bill, down the throats of neighborhood groups. Hundreds of neighborhood groups rallied and fought it tooth and nail. And we won.
And the point of that bill was to change the status of who was considered an ‘aggrieved person’?
Right. If you don’t live within 500 feet of the property in question, you’ve got no right.
And that was defeated at the local level?
At the local level it was defeated. It was placed to begin with on the floor of council because Councilpeople voting for Bill 629 hate SCRUB (Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight). SCRUB is an anti-billboard organization that goes after billboards. And some Councilpeople didn’t like the idea of a nonprofit grassroots organization, that believes that billboards equal blight, coming into a community and helping a community fight a billboard. So they decided to introduce Bill 629, which said if you don’t live within 500 feet of this property, you have no say, period. We were able to defeat that, and then a year later, it showed up mysteriously in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Babette Josephs miraculously found it. I remember because I worked for her at the time. She called me from the floor of the house and she said, we’re doing a budget here and I just found this line, and it’s Bill 629 all over again, up here in Harrisburg. She immediately got community groups in Philadelphia involved, who put pressure on the Philadelphia delegation and it shriveled away again. And now, it’s showed up again in Act 193.
Was this an amendment to an existing act?
I don’t know the history of that piece of legislation in its current form, but I do know the effect. And it’s going to be devastating to communities. What it means is that stronger, better financed neighborhood groups can always hire lawyers to fight it, and those neighborhoods that need advocacy the most, those without the money, those without the lawyers in their neighborhood to volunteer their time, they get royally screwed.
So it’s just another way to cut citizens out of the zoning process?
That’s just what it is. It’s a pro-developer piece of legislation, and I’m sure it’s being championed by legislators in Harrisburg with very close ties to Philadelphia, but that would just be a guess on my part. But it’s not just a coincidence.
How is this different from the amendment to Act 71 Fumo tried to get passed before the summer recess? That would strip Philadelphia of all say concerning the casinos?
Guys like that, they want the casinos. They want the casino at Delaware and Reed, they don’t want someone from Fishtown organizing, and screaming, and hooting and hollering about a casino at Delaware and Reed.
Because they’ve always run the city by ‘divide and conquer’.
That’s it. This is their game. If you want to talk about politics, I’ll be happy to. Fumo, Rendell, DiCicco, are friends of developers, the State Senator and the Councilman far friendlier than the Governor when it comes to local developers, and they simply do not have the interests of the people at heart. And, they’ll do everything they can to simulate like they’re doing certain things, like let’s have extended time for hearings, which is very nice-
Who’s saying that?
Apparently DiCicco sent a letter for that.
Oh, you mean at the end of the public comment period, in June, June 2nd?
Yeah. Oh let’s do this, or let’s create an entertainment district, or whatever, well it’s so they can point and say, we did request this, we did ask for that. but what they’re not doing is putting a circle around the Delaware and saying ‘get your paws off’ until we figure out what we’re doing. I was on the Gaming Commission Site Selection Committee. I was appointed by the mayor. And they were wonderful people, very smart; Paul Levy, who I admire and respect tremendously, and other smart individuals who know a lot about this stuff, and dedicated Philadelphians who love this city. We sat around a table and we said, OK, we’re going to go around and determine potential sites for these casinos. Well, where did we start? Did we go to the community and say where do you think we should have these casinos? No. What we did was, well, the newspapers say that so-and-so company really likes Delaware and Reed, and this company really likes Sugarhouse, and so-and-so’s company have really got their eye on the incinerator site. So I guess these are the sites we’ll examine. Already, at the very beginning, the city was working from their playbook. And it was a playbook given to the people by the media, leaked by the casino companies, supported by the politicians. I have no qualms about saying that, it is not a conspiracy theory, that’s exactly what happened. I was there.
Then they actually had public meetings, in the middle of last summer, I think, and the one for the first Council District was at the Seaport Museum, which, by the way, is probably the most difficult public site to get to, and that was supposed to cover everybody from Pennsport to Fishtown. And then most of us weren’t even allowed to be on the panel, to talk to the folks. They know what I would have said if I were onstage and that’s why they didn’t want me there.
What would you have said?
That this is a crock of crap. These are policies of pessimism, the idea that we can’t run our own shop. That we can’t figure out what’s right for us, so we better take what we’re given.
What do you think? If you look ahead, what would you like to say to Philly to think differently?
We have to raise our expectations. That’s something I’ve been trying, quietly, to push in the forums we’ve been having. We need to raise our expectations about everything. We need a mayor and at least one or two people on City Council who say, no, I’m sorry; you’re not putting a casino on the Delaware River until we figure out a plan. And we’re going to give the appropriate resources and the funds and the support that the City Planning Commission needs, not some secret nonprofit that the people will never be able to get to, but the City Planning Commission. And say, come up with something. Come up with a plan in the right way, with communities as your partners. It may take time, but let’s do it correctly. And when you come up with a plan, after having mandatory community input, then you have to use the plan. Because there are plenty of plans out there that the City Planning Commission has put together in the past for different neighborhoods, but no one’s ever used them. So, you’ve got to be committed to using them. I think it needs to become public policy that you use them, that every District Councilperson has to use the plan. So that’s a good first step, and it doesn’t cost a whole lot of money to do that.
Frankly, I’m of the opinion that casinos will come here, but I don’t think they should be on the river. I think you do not do that to an area that’s already organically growing. It’s growing organically. What we need to do is make sure it doesn’t overgrow and that people have access to it. My dream of the river, if I were the District Councilperson, I’d say, don’t come to me with too many plans for towers. What I want to see is lots of green, I want to see bike paths. I spent many years in Boston. I lived in Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and the lungs of that side of Boston were Storrow Drive and the Charles River. You could rock climb, you could roller blade, there were playgrounds, you could fish, there were little boats, and all open to the public, for 5 bucks you rent the boat. That’s the stuff we should be doing. It should be part of the lungs of the city. And it should also be used for recreation. It should be a place where people say, wow, I’d love to move to Old City, or Washington Square West, or Bella Vista, or Passyunk Square, because six blocks east is some of the greatest recreation. I don’t have to go all the way to Kelley Drive. It actually, I think, will increase the property values of everybody who lives in east Philadelphia. People want to live on the river, too, that makes sense. But I’m very worried about this new nonprofit that’s being floated. The idea of this nonprofit that will be created by the same people who are giving us Foxwoods and Sugarhouse, and who’ve given us other nonprofits that are now currently under FBI investigation. DiCicco and Fumo created Citizen’s Alliance. They’re all over the media right now with the FBI and I think the last thing we should do is trust them to create yet another nonprofit. It’s just not a good idea.
Other cities have sustainability plans and growth strategy plans in place. They have implemented them with public support because they have included the public in the process. Why can’t this happen in Philly?
It can happen in Philly. I’m of the opinion that it can. What we need to do is continue to educate people on how it affects them, why it’s important to them. Many folks already understand that when sustainable, responsible development and planning is done in your neighborhood, around your neighborhood, and in your city, that means your roads are better, that means the air is cleaner, that means your kids are healthier, that means prices for food are lower because the food is right there. There are some areas here in town where you can’t find a supermarket. So I think when people begin to realize that sustainable growth and development actually affects them and how they live, and the roads they drive on and the sidewalks they walk on, they’re going to realize that it’s time for that to happen. But the greatest deficit we have is a leadership deficit in city hall. We need some Councilmembers, we need the mayor, or the next mayor, to say this is something that needs to be a priority, and we need to make it happen.
The sixth issue with responsible development reform is full, ethical disclosure. The problem is, we don’t know whose pulling the strings here. Developers give thousands and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to these guys. What we need to do is what we did for city contracts. Every time you apply for a zoning variance for a large development, you need to disclose how much money you gave and whom you gave it to, and what year you gave it for the last two to five years. And watch how quickly we’re able to connect those dots. And then the public will say, wait a minute, no wonder Blatstein’s gotten away with all this in Northern Liberties, no wonder the communications tower went up at 12th and Moyamensing and nobody knew about it. No wonder Wal-Mart was pushing so hard for Port Richmond even though no one in Port Richmond wanted a Wal-Mart. Because they’ve been giving thousands and thousands of dollars to the District Councilperson’s, or to whomever, to their campaigns. Well, now it all makes sense. But right now there’s no transparency. The general public doesn’t know it; you have to hunt for it. But if it become a part of the record at the zoning board, every time a variance is given out, on that application it’s, OK, let’s see, so and so developer wants a variance for X, the community opposes it, the Councilperson supports it. Oh, they gave $17,000 dollars to the District Councilperson’s campaign in 2004. I’m not saying disqualify the developer; what I’m saying is, let the people know. Because then they’ll be able to hold that elected person, who took that money, and turned their back on the people, accountable. And that’s what we need. It’s the last thing on the list of responsible development reform, but without it, you really can’t get to the others.
For more information about Vern Anastasio and his views on zoning and development issues, visit www.VernAnastasio.com.