That sound you heard from City Hall Thursday was mayoral nominee Jim Kenney and Mayor Michael Nutter mending fences. Though relations between the St. Joe’s prep classmates and former council colleagues were testy in recent years, Kenney and Nutter are fairly close kin in terms of policy and so-called progressive urbanism.
Thursday brought a truce. Nutter threw his support behind Kenney as his Democratic successor, after the two met privately to discuss the future of the city and transition planning. For his part, Kenney indicated that should he be elected mayor his administration would take up some signature Nutter-era initiatives, including government transparency. That’s refreshing since mayoral hopefuls all but avoided talking about Nutter throughout the campaign season.
During the primary campaign Democratic mayoral candidates scarcely mentioned Nutter, which meant no one was really trying to harness some of the positive vibes that are washing over Philly – a good deal of which happened on Nutter’s watch, sometimes in spite of Council’s lackluster cooperation. After hitting snooze for decades, Philly is modestly growing, experiencing a building boom, and grappling with ways to make sure that the benefits of this change are more widely shared. The Nutter years drew a higher-functioning government out of the murky pit that was Philadelphia politics. Our development processes are cleaner, city planning has been rebooted, civic engagement is de rigueur, and as a city we’re newly willing to experiment with our public spaces.
Not a bad narrative to inherit if you’re Jim Kenney.
Still, too much work started under Nutter is unfinished. And if Kenney’s smart he’ll find ways to align his message and plans with the city’s elevated expectations for a strong, transparent, and predictable planning and development climate in Philadelphia. I have questions about what a Mayor Kenney would pick up, where he’d stand, what he’d change, and what’s next? Here are six:
1. Will Kenney be able to push pro-planning moves through council?
In some ways Kenney still thinks like a Councilman, where he served for six terms. A popular refrain on the campaign trail was a lesson he learned from John Street: You need nine votes in Council to get anything done. That’s a lesson Kenney says Nutter failed miserably to adopt.
Will Kenney’s good relations with Councilmembers and his support for completing planning work started under the Nutter administration translate into legislation and votes? Can he accelerate the process of zoning remapping, for example, which has languished in several councilmanic districts? What about nudging forward better bike infrastructure that requires legislation to realign streets? Or will he err on the side of deference to District Councilmembers?
2. Will Kenney prioritize professional expertise in his appointments to technical commissions and boards like the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the City Planning Commission?
Michael Nutter did not keep his campaign promise to reform the Zoning Board of Adjustment. It’s still an overly permissive mess where developers have their way with the city. So can we expect better from a Kenney administration? Or will he be more inclined to repay some political favors, the way previous mayors have. (Think David Auspitz, of Famous 4th fame, as ZBA chair.) Kenney did tip his hand in an interview with PlanPhilly in February:
“I would be looking for professional credentials not just at the zoning board but most of the other boards and commissions in the city––trying to find professionals who are talented and skilled and certified in their particular areas to serve on the various boards.
Now I will say, there are going to be some political considerations. There always are. You’re not going to totally professionalize every board and commission without some political input, but I think you can do it with an eye towards appointees that also have the right professional credentials.
I’m not particularly happy with the ZBA at this point. It’s not a rap on any particular member, but I think there needs to be more attention to the process to ensure that it’s fair, comprehensive, and speedier than it is.”
3. How will Kenney balance the interests of the building trade unions who backed him so mightily with the city’s broader development interests?
The Nutter administration has been accused of being too developer friendly. Kenney is clearly pro-labor. Where will Kenney stand given the hefty campaign contributions his campaign got from building trade unions, and the backing of John Dougherty, the politically influential head of the Electrician’s Union? Will he and Johnny Doc hit the road, stumping for out-of-town investment, with the promise of positive labor relations and reasonable construction costs in a bubbling market? Will he use his pro-labor stance as leverage to negotiate the value of mixed jobsites with union/nonunion workers as a way to help make sure unions get work on big projects and developers get fewer headaches? Or will we still hear the tired refrain, that Philadelphia’s got Baltimore prices and New York costs when it comes to new construction?
4. Will Kenney be the mayor who does for preservation what Nutter did for planning?
For the first time in decades the city has a comprehensive plan and our zoning code was overhauled. But the city’s historic resources—both high style and commonplace—have not been afforded a thoughtful enough consideration along the way.
As a councilman and during his primary campaign, Kenney came out strong for historic preservation in a rare way. He argued that Philadelphia’s historic fabric is fundamental to our character and that our legacy assets should be the foundation upon which our city grows. Will a Kenney administration create a robust climate of historic preservation? Will he appoint a stronger Historical Commission? Will his administration find partners and funding sources necessary to both complete a comprehensive historic resource inventory and then a citywide preservation plan? He says he wants these things, and it could prove a legacy accomplishment that touches nearly every corner of the city.
5. Can Kenney reform L&I?
Despite blue ribbon commissions, leadership changes, new uniforms, updated branding, and more than a few earnest attempts to improve data management, the Department of Licenses and Inspections remains dysfunctional. The Nutter administration has endeavored to improve L&I’s operations, streamline permitting, and make smarter rules for site safety; City Council came forward with ideas of its own in the wake of tragedy. The next mayor will inherit an agency in crisis that also happens to be critical to both development and public safety. Can Kenney separate L&I’s business licensing and permitting duties from its public safety responsibilities? Kenney has long recognized that the agency is underfunded given the demands placed on it. Can he find ways to raise revenue to support the critical work L&I needs to do? Would a Kenney administration get L&I working closer with other departments, like Revenue, to share information?
6. Would Kenney be able to kill City Hall Parking Lot once and for all?
While credit for Dilworth Park goes to Center City District, it’s also part of Mayor Nutter’s public space legacy. Now it’s time to finish the job. As a councilman Jim Kenney introduced legislation to ban parking from City Hall’s apron. Would he help continue the positive transition of City Hall’s surroundings into a proud public space? Or will schlepping back and forth to his car make him feel differently about the ease of treating City Hall’s public realm as a parking lot?