Book Review: “Fixing Broken Cities”

April 5, 2010
By Elise Vider
For PlanPhilly

Like Zelig, the Woody Allen character who is omnipresent at important historical events, John Kromer has been a participant in – or at least a keen observer of – many of Philadelphia’s most significant urban experiments of the last 40 years.

Now, in his new book Fixing Broken Cities: The Implementation of Urban Development Strategies (Routledge, New York and London), Kromer recounts, with extraordinary recall and specificity, some of the defining moments of his career that have also shaped the city we know today.

Kromer served as Philadelphia’s director of housing during the Rendell years, from 1992 to 2001, and is now a senior consultant at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a recent interview, he painted an upbeat narrative of the city’s recent progress. First by securing the core through downtown revitalization, next by supporting infill and reinvestment through the 10-year tax abatements and by demolishing and replacing the city’s least successful public housing with more desirable housing types, Kromer said, “Philadelphia [is] in an excellent position to go forward.”

Kromer has his heroes, but he doesn’t give free passes

Kromer’s heroes include Philadelphia First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, sponsor of the tax abatements; Paul Levy of the Center City District; Rose Gray of the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), a successful North Philadelphia community development corporation;  Philadelphia Housing Authority head Carl R. Greene and former Penn President Judith Rodin, who instigated housing and development initiatives in West Philadelphia.

But Kromer doesn’t view his subject through rose-colored lenses. “I wanted to convey the dynamics and implications after the policies are determined and the speeches are made and people have to do things at the ground level,” he said.

Kromer’s book is riddled with examples of how bad politics becomes the enemy of good policy. The sad story of the West Philadelphia fire house at 50th and Baltimore is a case in point: Closed in 1984, the building was adaptively reused as a farmer’s market from 1989 to 2005. Hostilities about the community’s role in planning, the participation of minority vendors and even whether the market violated an agreement not to sell dairy products led to boycotts and racially-based community rancor. (A postscript: the building thrives again today as a brew pub.)

Politics was also key to the ultimate failure of Mayor John Street’s signature Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), to which Kromer devotes two chapters. Kromer praises NTI in concept, but writes that Street’s biggest tactical mistake was in ceding to City Council members authority over the allocation of NTI funding, a miscalculation which greatly weakened opportunities for strategic investment. An equally large failing, he writes, was that “NTI program decisions were being made in the absence of planning.” So too, was the failure to create a workable land bank.

State and local politics – including a bitter public feud between Street and then-Redevelopment Authority Chairman John Dougherty – also doomed efforts to coordinate the city’s housing agencies, although Kromer does not view that as a loss. With coordinated leadership and defined areas of specialization, the city’s multiple housing agencies can work effectively, he argues.

Kromer does give NTI some kudos. He credits NTI with leveraging private investment in some previously disinvested neighborhoods, such as Brewerytown and East Poplar, and expediting projects such as APM’s Pradera Townhouses in North Philadelphia, which knitted neighborhood development with the growing Temple University campus. And, he writes, the early NTI campaign that removed nearly 33,000 abandoned cars throughout the city was “transformative.” (The 2010 Census will confirm whether NTI met its goal of stimulating a five percent increase in Philadelphia’s population; preliminary counts indicate that it did.)

Kromer takes a relatively benign view of councilmanic privilege, often pointed to as an enemy of strategic thinking in Philadelphia. Unlike Pittsburgh and Cleveland, for example, federal Community Development Block Grants in Philadelphia are not apportioned by council district. “It’s really to Philadelphia’s credit that this approach has been worked out and maintained. That’s not to say there isn’t pressure brought to bear,” he said.

Kromer’s take on Philly’s mayors

His assessments of Philadelphia’s recent mayors are equally nuanced. Rendell, his boss for eight years, viewed planning as a luxury the cash-strapped city couldn’t afford. Rendell reduced infighting among city departments, Kromer writes, but failed to encourage forward-thinking collaboration.

Nor did Rendell’s much-ballyhooed partnership with then-Council President Street necessarily produce positive outcomes, Kromer writes. “The prospects for successful commercial development on Girard Avenue to complement the residential land uses north and south of the corridor were severely limited by the fact than an organization headed by a political ally of Street’s had staked out a claim to several key development parcels along the avenue … These issues were important, but not important enough to warrant an attempt by Mayor Rendell to try to persuade Council President Street to strengthen the city administration’s hand in determining how the sites would be developed.”

As for Street’s mayoral performance, Kromer is blunt: “In housing and urban development, the issue of who your friends are can have a lethal effect on good policy. As the Street administration went on, that problem surfaced more than it had in previous administrations.”

Kromer also cites as a challenge for the current administration the fact that, contrary to tradition, Street has remained as chair of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, rather than step aside for Mayor Michael Nutter.

Kromer gives high marks to Nutter so far. Citing the comprehensive plan and zoning reform, both underway, and the Planning Commission’s new guidelines for community planning, Kromer noted that the administration “is doing a lot of hard work that had not been done in previous years…This administration has the right approach and the right people involved.”

Looking ahead, Kromer lists 10 strategies for city governments, including a focus on workforce and rental housing. Postindustrial cities like Philadelphia are poised to do well, he said, but noted that realistically, urban development is a cyclical affair. “Some features of the devastated downtown landscape [of the 1970s and 80s] may re-emerge and have to be confronted again by a new generation of leaders,” he writes.

“People who want cities to succeed,” he adds, “need to determine how best to respond to the opportunities associated with change, while preserving and renewing those things of value that make a place attractive and give a place an identity of its own.”

Elise Vider is a freelance journalist who has an extensive background in city planning and historic preservation.
Contact the writer at elisevider@yahoo.com
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