Community leaders hopeful as Brandywine and Penn Medicine commit to local and minority hiring for upcoming projects

Philadelphia’s leaders gathered Tuesday under the gilded trim of the Mayor’s reception room in City Hall to celebrate a job well done on work that’s yet to begin.

Joined by city councilmembers, businessmen, and union leadership, Mayor Jim Kenney announced a trio of programs aimed at boosting minority participation in the building trades. Combined, the programs will provide a pathway for about 100 minorities and women a year to start union apprenticeships and find employment thereafter.

The building trade unions in the Greater Philadelphia region see about 2,000 apprentices a year, estimated Tony Wigglesworth of the Philadelphia Labor Management Committee, which runs the Building Trades Council’s labor management program.

Despite the small size, the program could ultimately have a large impact in the makeup of the building trades. Baby boomers are beginning to retire, leaving large vacancies just as Philadelphia’s construction market has finally fully recovered from the recession. As more minorities fill the union ranks, hiring discrimination—both explicit and implicit—will become less and less tenable.

All three of the programs would operate similarly, recruiting from Philadelphia neighborhoods with a focus on diversity, putting applicants through a short “boot camp” to ensure they have all the necessary prerequisites to begin an apprenticeship program (like a driver’s license), then are put to work with a contractor while taking classes to prepare them for the apprenticeship exam, which aspiring trade union members must pass as a preliminary step. Participants that pass the apprenticeship exam will then be hired to work with one of the skilled building trade unions.

Two of the programs will be privately run: Brandywine Realty Trust and Penn Medicine will run the Construction Advancement and Placement Program (CAPP) and PennAssist, respectively. The third, PHL Pipeline, relates to Rebuild, a $500 million program to rehabilitate parks, rec centers, and libraries, to be funded through bonds and a massive William Penn Foundation grant. The CAPP program has already begun with 25 participants, and PennAssist is beginning with 49, said Wigglesworth. Workforce diversity and inclusion has been both an emphasis and sticking point as the Rebuild initiative begins.

The efficacy of the privately run programs will be harder to track, although Brandywine’s CEO, Jerry Sweeney, pledged to report numbers to the city’s office of economic opportunity. Brandywine also pledged that half of the construction and operations jobs created as part of Phase I of its Schuylkill Yards development will go to West Philadelphia residents, and 40 percent to minorities.

When Brandywine first unveiled the Schuylkill Yards plan with Drexel University in 2016, it pledged to build $3.5 billion worth of new buildings across a brand new, 14-acre neighborhood just west of 30th Street Station, and to do so without disrupting the fabric of the nearby communities.

Last week, Brandywine signed a community benefits agreement with registered community organizations in the surrounding neighborhoods, pledging $3.1 million in funds during Schuylkill Yards’ first phase for affordable housing and workforce development programs.

The funds are just part of what Brandywine calls its “Neighborhood Engagement Initiative”, through which Brandywine has pledged another $2.5 million for CAPP and other programs aimed at diverting some of Schuylkill Yards’ anticipated economic cascade to benefit the nearby communities. Both Sweeney and community leaders say the initiative will serve as a model for equitable development in Philadelphia.

“It wasn’t an easy task to reach an agreement, but one thing that I think this agreement will do, is set the tone for future community benefit agreements in the future,” said De’Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association. Along with the Powelton Village Civic Association, and the Mt. Vernon Manner and People’s Emergency Center community development corporations, Mantua Civic will oversee how the $3.1 million will be spent in the community. “Usually the developer runs the oversight process and the community groups are just advisors,” said Drummond. “I think in this role we are more than advisors, we’re an oversight board.”

Drummond said he hopes the agreement will serve as model for Schuylkill Yards’ Phase II. So, too, did Sweeney.

“The agreement will go on until Phase 1 is completed. So, that’s five, seven, 10 years, maybe four years— whoever knows,” said Sweeney. “But we really viewed that as the platform for the next zoning phase. We’ll be back for at least two more zoning approvals.” Zoning changes for the first six acres of the 14-acre program was approved earlier this month by Council.

The need for further zoning changes to allow for the construction of skyscrapers where parking lots and train yards sit today provides the community leverage against the publicly-traded developer. For similar reasons, Drummond enthused about Mantua’s recent downzoning. In recent years, the long-declining neighborhood saw an influx of privately-developed student housing, much to the chagrin of longtime residents. “It ensures we’re at the table; we’re not anti-development” said Drummond, who then turned to a favorite aphorism of his. “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”

Construction of Schuylkill Yards will begin later this summer with the creation of Drexel Square, a small park that will sit in between the Bulletin Building and 30th Street Station where a moribund plaza is now. Brandywine hopes a pair of skyscrapers across John F. Kennedy Boulevard, where a parking lot now sits, will soon follow. When asked where Brandywine stood in the process of securing financing for the first buildings, Sweeney demurred.

“What we’ve really done is we’ve created a platform for institutions like Drexel, Penn and [the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania] to really lay an effective growth platform going forward,” said Sweeney. “I think one of the biggest remaining issues of an innovation district in Philadelphia is growing jobs. Money follows jobs, not the other way around.”

A report issued by the Brookings Institution earlier this year suggested that all the city needed to do to ensure the development of a job-generating “innovation district” hub surrounding Schuylkill Yards was inspire the region’s investors to look inward to the city for their next punt.

According to Sweeney, significant municipal tax reform would unlock the city’s potential, leading to the initial job growth that would trigger office demand in University City and set off a virtuous cycle of real estate development and economic boom there. Sweeney has been one of the most prominent backers of the Philadelphia Job Growth Coalition, which has advocated for replacing the wage tax and other business taxes with more real estate taxes.

According to Kevin Gillen, an economist at Drexel University, Philadelphia has the second highest per capita municipal tax burden among cities in the United States. Gillen agrees that the city taxes the “wrong things.”

“Most cities are financed by the property tax first, then state and federal aid second, then other taxes—like sales taxes—are a very distant third,” Gillen told PlanPhilly in a prior interview. “We tax wages and businesses first, then [finance] with state and federal aid. Property taxes are a distant third.”

Even without tax reform, Sweeney said he expects Schuylkill Yards to be a success — only one that will take longer to arrive.

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