By Thomas J. Walsh
Rina Cutler, who knows her way around a traffic jam, is one of the city’s definitive realists. The former Philadelphia parking czar is now the deputy mayor for transportation and utilities. Wednesday, she related a pretty solid Philadelphia story.
In a cab from the airport, she got into it with a cabbie who didn’t want to take her credit card. Forget about SEPTA for the moment. Cutler, as everyone in this small conference room at the Four Seasons knew well, is not one to be trifled with. She’s to the point, to say the least. She argued with the cabbie.
“I was thinking, I will get arrested, which would be front-page news … or he’ll keep my credit card.” Instead, Cutler surrendered a business card. The cabbie deferred to her authority, and put through her credit card. It was a white-collar guffaw, sure. But the humor was in the imagination of those who have dealt with her. She had other stories – some funny, some not; some poignant, some just bureaucratic but gut-level germane.
Cutler, new deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, was a guest of honor at an event sponsored by the Urban Land Institute that brought together a roomful of developers, brokers, architects, planners and city officials. It was a late-day gathering introduced by Paul Levy, long-time leader of the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. (CPDC) and its better-known subsidiary, the Center City District (CCD).
It was a time for upbeat prognostication, branded by a signature-quick Levy PowerPoint that left not much room to doubt Philadelphia – Center City in particular – as an inspired, rising metropolis. Tons of investment opportunities. Great office vacancy rates. Bubble-immune and steady and yeah, we lose some market share to the suburbs pretty consistently – so what?
With her Philly-style humor, Cutler was surely not surprised that she was bad cop to prodigal son Andrew Altman’s good cop. Impressively, he is keeping to his own truth – in his first few months as new chief of planning, commerce, and economic development – that he knows relatively very little about how the city works, with its labyrinthine levels of Licenses & Inspections, Planning, departments of Streets and beyond.
“I’ve been gone 20 years,” said Altman, who is in his mid-40s, speaking of his life in general, not his career. The first thing he noticed recently about his native city was the “remarkable transformation of Center City and so many parts of the city since leaving, that’s just incredible. It’s a testament to the Center City District and so many others.” He spoke of “vibrancy,” “expansion” and neighborhoods. Recently, he had been at 13th and Bainbridge and in the midst of Grays Ferry. “I remember these neighborhoods growing up and we wouldn’t have been driving through” with the mayor, he said.
Altman said it took his leaving the city – to the likes of Boston, Washington, San Francisco and Jerusalem – “to truly appreciate Philadelphia.” Yet he still very much feels that negative vibe. Several times a day, maybe even 10 times a day, he hears this: “That’s Philly.” That’s this town, man. That’s Philly, bro. Yo, like’s what’s new, man?
Cutler said she knows the feeling, and has the added experience of serving in Harrisburg, where the rest of the state likes to ignore the massive economic force generated from the five-county Philadelphia area. With an audible inhale, Cutler brought to mind Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men.”
Altman, for his part – and this may have made a few shudder – said that the city right now makes him feel like a certain time in the history of Washington, D.C. When “urban life and urbanism and city-ness” fixed a downtown effort into a framed result. “It has to do with my own transformation,” Altman said, referring to the way he now looks at housing, parks and the pride he hears and feels from Philadelphians these days.
“That’s why I’m here,” Altman said. “It really does feel to me like the stars are aligned right now.”
“What I heard today was inspiring, but not surprising,” said Dana Spain-Smith, former owner and chief operating officer of DLG Media Holdings, which in February sold its stake in Philadelphia Style magazine and online publications DC Style and ACConfidential.com to a New York entity. Cutler, Altman and the rest of the Nutter administration “are not running” from the enormous expectations they have shouldered, Spain-Smith said.
“For me, as a Center City resident and a business woman,” she said, “The change is exciting.”
Ultimately, Cutler, said, everything comes down to infrastructure – transportation and utilities. Sure, the topic will not be front-and-center at next year’s Academy Awards. But, “You cannot do development without dealing with both of those infrastructure problems,” she said.
Last year’s Act 44 in the state legislature, “breathed new life into SEPTA,” Cutler said, referring to December’s passing of the Pennsylvania Public Transportation Trust Fund, combining state funds into a single pool via state sales taxes, Turnpike Commission funds, lottery money and transit funding sources.
“This is the first time that I’ve been here that they’ve not been under siege,” Cutler said about SEPTA. “It’s an astounding freedom SEPTA has not had before. For the first time they may have the breathing room to try to do some planning, and that’s a very big deal.”
That said, the city’s bridges and streets “are woefully under-funded,” Cutler said. Roads “are in atrocious shape.”
The upside? The city’s economic development, transportation and utility arms are walking in unison, Altman and Cutler said.
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