Q&A with Jim Kenney: Full version

PlanPhilly sat down with ex-Councilman and current Mayoral contender Jim Kenney last week for a conversation that touched on a wide variety of planning topics, from historic preservation to Vision Zero to the virtues of public transportation. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity. 

PlanPhilly: Tell us about your work with the architecture firm Vitetta––what projects were you involved in and how has that informed your thinking about planning issues?

Jim Kenney: I’ve been with Vitetta for about 13 years. I was going to not run again in 2003 and was looking for a private sector gig. I had friends of mine who I had known for 15 years or so who were principals at the firm, and they suggested I come work for them. In the interim I decided to run, and was conflicted about whether I could actually do both. I knew that I would put enough time into my Council position because the firm understood that my first responsibility was Council.

I got an opinion from the city Solicitor and an opinion from outside legal counsel that said I could do both. We decided not to pursue city work, even though the opinion said we could as long as I recused myself from any vote, and also informed the chief clerk of the Council that we were pursuing a city contract. They decided not to pursue city work, period.

There were three contracts that they had with the city that pre-dated me. One was a 25-year relationship with the Art Museum. Which is kind of strange because the city owns the Art Museum but they were being paid by the foundation. So it wasn’t really city money, but it was a city facility. The second one was the contract for the Criminal Justice Center, and the third was the master plan for City Hall––the masonry renovation and restoration was done by Vitetta. Kelly/Maiello was the prime contractor. We worked as a sub for them. Those all predated my coming on board.

Then they decided as a philosophy not to pursue city work at all from my time there moving forward. We don’t do it, but I want to just elaborate a bit. That work is bid––it’s not legal patronage or insurance companies or bond houses or anything like that. It’s a competitive bid. If we decided we wanted to pursue a city project, we would have to put in a bid, respond to an RFP, and go through a selection process. If we were selected I’d have to disclose it. So one of my opponents is continually banging away at Vitetta, whatever––we don’t do any city work. We’ve intentionally not pursued it, so I think I’m in good shape.

I have to tell you though that working for a private company, I’ve learned a lot. Historic preservation is one of the main components of the company, and I’ve learned a lot about that. School design and construction, learned about that. Sadly, prison design and construction, learned about that. We do a lot of institutional work with universities and colleges. I’ve learned how to make a payroll, and collect receivables.

A lot of folks in the public sector, in elected office, have never worked in the private sector, and I think working in the private sector is a value in that you know what business people are going through in a bad economy. We downsized the company substantially from 2008 forward, because it was required, so we know the pull and push of what business people go through. An official who’s never been in the private sector will have more of a distanced view of what businesses deal with.

PP: Has it changed your view on some of the planning and development questions you deal with as an elected official?

JK: We don’t do landscape architecture or anything like that. We do engineering and design of buildings, architecture of buildings. We wouldn’t be involved in something like a Penn’s Landing renewal, for example.

For the preservation issues, certainly. First of all, I think we should have a stronger, more vibrant preservation attitude. I think that the Historic Commission should be staffed better than it is. I think that we should have a better roster of our significant buildings, and we should preserve those buildings as best we can.

Right now there are three areas of historic preservation designation: the National Register, the state register and the city register. There are buildings on the National Register that aren’t on the city’s. Not everything on the National Register’s significant––some were put on because of tax credit issues––so what I wanted to do with the legislation I introduced was get the Historic Commission to do an analysis of the National Register properties in Philadelphia and see which ones should go on the city register. That’s going to take a little bit of money, but maybe we could do something in partnership with the foundation community.

PP: That bill is in limbo now that you’re off Council.

JK: I’m not there to push it, so a lot of stuff that I introduced at the end might not get done.

PP: What was the story behind this bill?

JK: The idea for this bill came about because I got physically outraged when the owner of a synagogue at 6th and Bainbridge jackhammered off a Star of David on the front of the building. Why would you even touch that? I don’t care if you own that, that’s one of the oldest synagogues in the city. So I got angry about it and started investigating and found out it’s not on the city register. The guy could do anything he wanted with it.

Why would you take the star of David off of a building unless you had an issue with it? I will never go to the Barrel House again as a result of that. It’s the same owner. I’m done with that place now.

PP: Last year you had an exchange with the Planning Commission where you asked them what they would need to get zoning remapping done in three years. Do you think the way they’re approaching that project is the right way?

JK: I think that they’re probably understaffed. In some ways there is some foot-dragging going on based on what Council district it’s in. And I think the Mayor needs to engage the Council people and the Planning Commission on moving this forward faster.

There’s no sense in going through all the things we went through to get the zoning code updated only to have these remapping delays holding back all that work. It’s a tedious and expensive process, but it needs to move at a faster pace than it is now. I think a Mayor can push that forward and negotiate a little bit with the District Council members about what the issues are and why they’re hesitant or whatever. But it needs to get done.

PP: On the Mayoral side, do you think it’s more of an issue of attention or communication?

JK: I don’t know why it’s not getting done quicker, but if we had to go outside and get some outside help on a temporary basis I think that could be the way to go. But it has to be done because the zoning code reforms are not effective unless the remapping is done.

PP: There are over a hundred remapping bills prepared by the Planning Commission that are ready to go, but only a fraction have been passed by City Council. What’s the hold up?

JK: I’m at a little bit of a loss because I’m not a District Councilperson. I have not been intimately involved in that process, other than on the periphery asking why isn’t it done, and what we need to do to get it done. I think each district is different, and each district Councilperson has a different view of what’s going on. Jannie [Blackwell] may have a different view than Brian O’Neill. To play a positive role in it, the Mayor and the Mayor’s staff need to be in continuous negotiations and conversations with district Councilmembers to move things in the right direction, but it needs to be done.

PP: What do you think about Darrell Clarke’s proposed charter change reorganizing the various city planning agencies and commissions?

JK: I’ve heard some complaints about the charter change itself, but I do think that licensing should be separate from inspections. Licensing is an economic development issue. It’s streamlining the licensing process so people can get what they need.

The safety side needs to be looked at in a different way. The issue with the charter change is it’s going to put that in an area where it’s going to be even slower to get done. That’s something that a Mayor and Council President can negotiate and talk about, but I do think that licensing and safety inspections need to be separate areas. L&I is always given too much work to do and doesn’t have enough people.

PP: What should we be doing to secure more of the city’s vacant properties that present a safety threat?

JK: This is a huge problem. Every vacant factory building is a potential death trap for a firefighter and a danger to the neighborhood. Some of the properties are just massive, and the liens and the tax bills are all tangled up. And it’s very expensive to take down a two-square-block empty factory.

There needs to be a plan to try to repurpose things if possible, but we have to start taking some of that stuff down. And we have to figure out a legal mechanism to hold the existing owners accountable, but we can’t wait for them to do it because they’ll drag us through the courts forever and in the meantime the buildings get broken into by squatters or catch fire and we wind up losing firefighters, as in the case of Buck Hosiery.

So I think there needs to be a plan to do something with them, and we also need to find the owners who are responsible and make them pay up. That takes a conversation with the 1st judicial district or the legislature to try to speed up the process.

What we don’t have is a dependable court response to the city Solicitor’s office or the Law Department going forward to get action on these things. I think we need to have a conversation with the individual judges about speeding up the process so that absentee landlords living in New York and other places can’t just drag out the process. We need a serious legal approach to holding them accountable and we don’t have that now.

PP:  That’s the safety side of the charter change proposal. But Clarke also proposed bringing the Zoning Board of Adjustment and other planning functions under this new Department of Planning and Development. What do you think about that half of the proposal?

JK: I have not examined it as closely as I could have, but I think the relationship between the Council President and the Mayor is important for figuring out what can be done, what makes sense, and to come to some conclusion. I’m confident that my relationship with Darrell Clarke is such that that can happen.

PP: What do you think about the Nutter administration’s performance on city planning more generally?

JK: I think it’s been generally good. It’s been very inclusive of community input. The master plan for the Delaware waterfront was thoughtful, and inclusive of every neighborhood group along that route. I think it’s a daunting undertaking because a lot of the property is privately owned. You can only plan so much for someone’s private property. But I think the process is working and I wouldn’t change it. PennPraxis has been very involved in this making the process work. In general, their planning and sustainability goals have been very good, and I would maintain them and expand them.

PP: What are your plans for the Zoning Board of Adjustment? The ZBA was one of the Nutter administration’s targets for reform, but some people still think this board isn’t cooperating with the goals of zoning reform.

JK: Well first let me tell you what the zoning code was before it got improved. I likened it to a garage or an attic that you keep stuffing things in. So all these overlays and all this stuff, it was all stuffed in the attic and nobody could find anything.

When we reformed the zoning code, we emptied out the attic. But over the next 50 years, you’re going to have it fill up again because there are going to be certain mapping and overlay issues that people want to do, and we have to keep those to a minimum. Right now though it’s a pretty clean slate, which I think is a good thing. The remappings are still an issue and need to get done.  

Council’s going to ordain what they ordain based on the circumstances presented to them, and that is their right to do. They are elected officials who have the ability to adjust the code. It’s trying to do it in a sensible thoughtful manner so it doesn’t become a mish-mosh of pipes and wires that nobody can figure out.

PP: The ZBA appointees, though, serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. What are you going to be looking for in appointees?

JK:  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.

PP: Would you support leaving in place the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities in its current form?

JK: I would have to look at that in the transition. I think that transportation and utilities are extremely important urban issues. I like some of the things that have been done. The airport needs to be looked at because it’s a huge economic engine for the city, and we have to make sure that it is being run in an effective way.

Regarding the office itself, I do think that there has to be attention to both public transit, pedal transit, all the alternatives to traditional car travel. And I understand the car issue, I really do. We’re a spoiled motorized society that needs to be more multimodal. I use public transit almost daily. It’s effective and efficient and cheap. I think we should be encouraging people to use it more, especially college students and people who are working at the universities. Our regional transit is pretty good. Generally I think SEPTA is running as good as it can run based on the money that it’s had, and now with the transportation funding bill, there are a lot of infrastructure improvements we’re going to see coming from SEPTA that will make the system more attractive to people.

PP: There are a lot of huge projects coming down the pike. In West Philly, I’m not sure many people understand yet that we’re essentially getting a light rail system with these new low-floor trolleys.

JK: I am a huge supporter of public transit. I think that’s something that makes the city unique, that makes it livable, and affordable––and you don’t have to find a place to park your car all the time.

PP: We’re also getting the new bike share system this spring. Do you think we’re prepared enough for that? What do we need to do to make our streets safe for all these new less-experienced cyclists?

JK: There needs to be an education process for drivers and cyclists that the streets are shared space, and that drivers should not be angry and irate at someone who’s pedaling beside them or in front of them. That’s a police issue too.

I also believe that bicyclists should follow the rules. There are some people who don’t, who like to pop up on the pavement or go through red lights and weave in and out of car traffic.

I think the streets are everyone’s and it should be a shared experience. I saw a guy and his young kid at 12th and Arch yesterday practically get run over by a truck who did not stop for pedestrians in the intersection. That is a basic requirement of a driver: to stop and let people through the intersection. This guy just kept barreling through and the guy had to yank his kid back to stop from getting run over. I think we need better police enforcement. Police need to stop somebody like that and give him a big ticket.

I think bike lanes are a necessity. I know they’re controversial when it comes to some elected officials, and there are ways of managing that and massaging that issue, but they’re here to stay. I think we’re becoming more and more of a two-wheel city which is great for the environment, for people’s health, and for traffic congestion. I would continue that program.

As a person who drove myself, I felt the frustration of either a slower pace or single lane, but I had to get used to it. I had to get used to red light cameras. I got one red light ticket in my life, which was at Broad and Oregon, and I paid it and now my behavior is modified where if the light’s turning yellow, I brake instead of speed up to get through the light. People don’t like red light cameras, but they are effective. City Hall can be an absolute nightmare when it comes to people just blowing through red lights, and I think the red light cameras have done a good job at modifying people’s behavior.

PP: Pedestrian safety is an issue you’ve been passionate about on City Council. In fact you even said stopping the construction site blockades of sidewalks was a reason you wanted to run for Mayor.

JK: Nobody’s stealing sidewalks after 2016! It’s gonna stop. The worst thing you can see is crime scene tape wrapped around poles blocking off the sidewalk around a construction site.

It tells you a couple things. Number one: they don’t have a permit to do it. Number two: they’re probably not licensed to be working in the city and they’re probably paying their employees in cash. That’s all coming to an end.

I am looking into charging per day for the number of days they’re asking to close the sidewalk. I think what happens in Center City and Old City and other places is that they get a permit to block the sidewalk and then they move their workers from one job site to another so that 4 or 5 days at a time there’s no one on the job site. There’s a location on Race St between 2nd and 3rd where they’ve taken the sidewalk,and I haven’t seen a worker on the site in probably two weeks. So if you start paying for the sidewalk closure, at a reasonably decent sum, you’re going to finish the job and get the sidewalk open sooner.

New York City has the best system ever. The sidewalk sheds are just awesome. You can walk through Manhattan with all the construction that’s going on there and never run into a cyclone fence, never go into the street without a barrier. I am anal about sidewalk closures––the length of time that they’re allowed to be closed, and the havoc that they wreak in the neighborhoods. So if it’s $500-1000 a day to close the sidewalk, maybe we’ll get the sidewalk open sooner than we would have.

PP: The Bicycle Coalition is asking candidates to support a Vision Zero approach to pedestrian safety. Are you familiar with this idea? They’re asking the next Mayor and Council to commit to cutting in half the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities over the next Mayoral term.

JK: I believe in the philosophy that the sidewalk and the street is everyone’s, and there are rules of engagement that need to be followed. Obviously cutting down the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities is certainly a worthwhile goal, though there’s many facets. There’s many departments that deal with that stuff.

PP: So in New York City, Vision Zero has become one of the signature initiatives of the Bill De Blasio administration, and Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle have followed suit. In New York it’s taken the form of a cross-department collaboration with each department responsible for a different piece. Is this something you can see Philadelphia doing?

JK: Absolutely. Again, I’m not schooled in the whole process or briefed on the whole thing, but anything we can do for a multi-department approach to keeping people safer on our streets is certainly worthwhile.

PP: I had a ton of questions and I think we hit almost everything. This is amazing.

JK: [To communications director Lauren Hitt] See? I read the brief. And I know shit too. [laughs]

LH: [To Kenney] I know you know shit! I don’t [send you briefs] to insult your intelligence.

PP: Another major area of interest for you on City Council has been immigration reform. Do you have any ideas for things we could do from a planning perspective to help recent immigrants?

JK: The Mayor’s Office of Immigration Services exists. It’s two people, it sounds nice and looks nice, but I don’t think it’s overly effective.

I would like to take a quadrant of City Hall, on the first floor, move out all the offices that are in there, and take the Welcoming Center and slide it right in. I’d put some city money into it. They get state dollars, they get foundation money, and they know what they’re doing. It’s a multi-pronged approach to service delivery for new Philadelphians. And I think that we need to make it a part of the government, a proud part of the government, and embrace immigration similar to how Mayor Menino did in Boston.

New York is a natural magnet for immigrants, it’s always going to be. Boston I think has gone out of its way to be immigrant-friendly and immigrant service-friendly.

I am not a supporter of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or some of the stuff that those folks have been doing. I think people should be documented, but I’m not going to lose sleep over the fact that some are not. I’d like to look at the possibility of a municipal ID card to give people a chance to come out of the shadows.

People are here for all kinds of reasons. I’ll go back to my own immigrant roots. They didn’t want us here either: “No Irish Need Apply,” the Know-Nothings burning churches down. I think we need to embrace our diversity, and embrace different cultures and language. I want everybody to speak English but I never want people to lose their original language. Teach the kids both. We are a monolingual society in America and that’s stupid. We’re dealing in a global economy. Why wouldn’t we want to speak two or three languages? People in Europe speak two languages at least. All of them speak English, their own language, and maybe even another one.

So I think that this “Speak English, go back where you came from” attitude is just xenophobic craziness that doesn’t inure to the benefit of the city. So I think a ground floor office suite of services at City Hall so people can get the services they need is where I’m going.

PP: We’ve seen immigrants really revive some areas of the city economically, like the Italian Market for example.

JK: It’s not even the Italian Market anymore! With the exception of four or five anchor families of Italians, the furthest southern part is Mexican, there’s a big Middle Eastern contingent. It’s an international market anymore, and I think it’s one of the greatest things the city has. With Reading Terminal Market, it’s just iconic Philadelphia, and we need to build on that and improve it.

It’s hard sometimes getting those merchants to get along with the program, and I know Frank DiCicco had banged his head against the wall numerous times with the stalls and the fire barrels and all that other stuff.

You can’t organize too much. South Philly is like organized chaos. Things work because they’ve worked all these years. I mean, you can never explain to a person who people park in the middle of Broad Street. And I’m not going to be about changing that. That’s not on my agenda.

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