On the Record: Q&A with Greg Heller, director of Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority

Last month, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority selected Greg Heller, an author and community development professional, to serve as its executive director. Heller takes over for Brian Abernathy, who left the PRA this year to serve as the city’s first deputy managing director under Michael DiBerardinis.

Heller is the author of Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia, a biography of the celebrated city planner who led Philadelphia’s Planning Commission from 1949-1970. He comes to PRA from American Communities Trust, a national community-development consultancy based in Baltimore. He previously worked with Econsult Solutions, The Enterprise Center, and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Last summer, Heller gave a TEDx Philly talk about social impact real estate development.

Heller, who began the job earlier this month, spoke with PlanPhilly from his office on the 17th floor of 1234 Market last week. Jamila Davis, a communications officer with the Redevelopment Authority, joined the conversation as well. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The mission, the mandate of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, has changed considerably I would say over the decades. And lately, too, with the advent of the Land Bank, the mission is sort of changing again. How was it explained to you what this job was all about?

The common thread is that the PRA today is in some sense doing what it’s always done, which is taking vacant and blighted land and putting it back into active use, and working to redevelop and revitalize communities and working with developers to do that. So in some sense, the mission has never changed. But under the Kenney administration, what they’ve done is they’ve really centralized a lot of the planning, development, and housing functions and gotten a lot more coordination.

I hadn’t been here before, but my sense is that the PRA is much more of a coordinated team approach and that we’re working very closely with [Director of Planning & Development] Anne Fadullon and her office on a unified policy of how we do planning, development, and housing, which I think is a really good thing.

What do you think of as an exemplary PRA project, whether good or bad?

There are great projects happening every day. Just a few days ago I was at a groundbreaking for Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia’s largest project to date, which is 21 new homes. … So that was a great project, and PRA did the land disposition for that and now this vacant land is going to be put back into active use and through the great program that Habitat has, get homeowners in there who’ve contributed sweat equity.

So that’s a great project, and it feels really good to be out there and know that we were the ones who facilitated the transfer of that land. And there are projects like that on every board agenda, where we’re the ones who are able to facilitate this process of moving this land into the hands of someone who can put it back into active use. That’s a really powerful thing and it feels really good. And what we want to do is just make sure that the work that we’re doing is coordinated with the city’s larger agenda.

One of the big priorities of this administration is workforce housing. How can we use our land assets and our resources to identify sites and to get them into the hands of developers who are willing to do workforce housing. And that’s part of our developer agreements is that they’ll restrict the income on either all or a portion of the units.

What do you think of that strategy? I wasn’t actually planning to talk about that but that’s been an interesting thing to me, because you basically lock in a certain income level but only for 10 years or something like that usually. If I were playing devil’s advocate, it seems like maybe it’s just delaying the inevitable gentrification rather than stabilizing a community long-term.

Well, we’ve been doing deed restrictions like that for a long time. This isn’t the first time that we’re using that, and there are a number of federal programs that work the same way that we’ve administered and that other agencies have administered. So that’s not a new tool. I have to double-check this, but my understanding is that if you sell one of the workforce units before the 10 years are up, then you get a new 10-year clock for the next person. So it’s only people who have stayed in for the whole 10-year term who then get to have it free and clear.

JAMILA DAVIS: And then gentrification also happens, as you know, when someone actually leaves the development. So the idea is not just to stabilize that particular unit for that particular time, but to ingrain a community that has mixed income. So it doesn’t mean that after ten years that this person would get up and leave. That they would be ingrained in that community so they would still stay.

GREG HELLER: Right. At the end of the day there are a whole bunch of strategies for trying to build mixed-income communities and provide long-term stability for people who want to stay in changing communities. And different neighborhoods are at different places. Some neighborhoods are disinvested and are not seeing market changes. Others are seeing market changes. Others have already seen dramatic market changes. So there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

But there are two parts to this. One is maintaining stability in neighborhoods, and the other is dealing with the issue that, at the end of the day, a big part of this is about poverty. And it’s about economic opportunity. So it’s really merging those two approaches, of assuring neighborhood affordability while also providing opportunities for economic advancement and tackling poverty at the same time. And it’s a big lift but I feel like this administration is committed to that and is fairly coordinated in its approach. They’ve only been in 100 days. But I think you’ve got the right people and the right thinking behind how to do that.

So do you have a vision for what PRA should be doing and does it have sort of physical attributes to it?

Yeah, absolutely. So just to give you a little bit of background, what I was doing before this at American Communities Trust was that we were essentially a consultant who worked in 27 cities on community development and community finance strategies. And we worked with public-sector entities like the City of Seattle, commercial banks like Capital One, we worked with a number of financing tools including New Markets Tax Credits, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, we worked with nonprofits who were trying to build projects. So we really ran a spectrum of public, private, and nonprofit, but it was all around the theme of how do you redevelop low-income communities, and how do you use the full array of creative financing tools to do that.

And I think that background and that exposure in 27 different cities is part of what made this administration interested in what I had to offer. One of the things that I know that this administration wants to do is to explore creative financing strategies and how we can bring creative approaches to bear in the work that we do. One of the things that we definitely want to do is have the PRA get more involved in financing and not just in land disposition but in actually figuring out how we can bring creative financing strategies and leverage the public-sector investment. So that’s a really exciting opportunity, and I know that that’s a focus both of mine and of the administration.

And then the other big thing is between now and next June [when the Office of Planning & Development is officially created], the executive order has us doing a strategic plan. So we haven’t even all figured out what’s going to happen between now and then. We have to go through this process. And that’s also an exciting opportunity that the city hasn’t had in generations to rethink not only how we structure but how we as a city can promote a unified agenda.

I don’t think of it as just, what can PRA do? But what can we do as part of this larger toolkit and this coalition of different agencies and entities to create a much more powerful and effective approach to how we deal with communities.

Brian Abernathy has been, since he left this position, has been talking about condemnation and eminent domain and sort of speaking his mind about the difficulties of those things for the people who grow them, and I’m just wondering, as a sort of high-level matter of policy, do you think that that tool, eminent domain, is it right and is it necessary?

Well, there’s no doubt that eminent domain has been overused in the past, and that it has an impact on people’s lives. But it’s used very differently today, and again I know all about how it was used during urban renewal, but it’s used very differently today. And I think that it continues to have a place, but as you probably know the state in, I think it was 2006, kind of changed the powers of eminent domain in Pennsylvania … So starting at the end of 2012, powers of eminent domain were much more limited than they had been prior to that, and so it has a much more limited use legally. And also, there’s more of an awareness that in today’s world, it shouldn’t be used the way that it was used before. So there are really those two things that contribute to it.

I don’t want to associate you too much with what you write about in the book, but you talk about Ed Bacon as somebody who knew that policy ideas had to gestate for a certain period of time. And I’m wondering if you have ideas like this, that you think in your role as head of the Redevelopment Authority you can sort of hammer on and see if they filter out into the wider world. Are there things that you want to push?

There aren’t specific projects yet. I’m sure there will be. All of what I have I’ve inherited, and so I want to see the projects that we have in the works moved to a successful completion. That’s really my first priority. But I’m sure as time goes along I’ll find some projects that I’m really passionate about myself and I’ll try and figure out the route to move those projects through a period of months and years to where they can actually be built.

That’s kind of the process that I wrote about, is that Ed Bacon was a planner, but he understood processes of policy implementation, and I think that’s really important. And I think it’s important for people who deal with planning and development to understand what’s the process of getting from here to there and how do I work with all the players and build coalitions and figure out the resources available and see a route to actually getting it done?

There are obviously a lot of differences between myself and Ed Bacon, but that was sort of the point in my book is that that’s a really important skillset for public-sector officials, and it’s one that I very much do ascribe to.

And Bacon was sort of wildly incorrect about what was going to happen in the immediate future when he was predicting things in the late fifties in terms of population growth and loss and all that. How do you manage a position like this where you’re coordinating large-scale development without having some sort of crystal ball?

Well, that’s a good question.

JAMILA DAVIS: I would say that I’ve seen it where sometimes projects take shape. So sometimes the way that you enter a project and the plan that you and the architect and the developer and everybody who works together, as time goes on, as you talk to the community and even as you start building, we’ve seen plans here change and evolve. So what may be the first original plan, it may just evolve over time, and I think that everybody has to be open to that process, especially when you’re committed, which I think PRA has been especially in the last recent administrations, where they’re committed to the community input and hearing that voice. So sometimes plans evolve. So you can have a big-picture plan, but as it starts to actually be implemented it can change.

GREG HELLER: Yeah, that’s a good point. In some respects, you don’t need the crystal ball, you just need to work with the players involved and be willing to help the project evolve as it changes and as pieces come together.

So you say you inherited some of the projects you’re working on now. And two of the biggest ones, I think, are what’s going on in Eastwick and what’s going on in Logan. What’s your approach to those projects specifically? Do you feel like they’re already sort of on the track?

Those are both projects that have evolved and will continue to evolve. They’re big projects that are going to change as time goes on. My goal in both of those is to work closely with the community, make sure that we’re being responsive to community needs and feedback. In the case of Logan, we’re continuing to work with Goldenberg Group who is under a current reservation letter.

So that’s really my main goal is to get a sense of where the pulse of the community is right now, what the community’s wants and needs are, what’s best for the future of the site, and to work with the various folks who are involved to get to that point.

The next steps with Eastwick is that there’s a community plan that is being developed by WRT in close coordination with the Planning Commission and that plan is currently being finished and reviewed by the Planning Commission and community stakeholders. So that’s the real step because whatever happens there is going to have to be responsive to what’s in the community plan.

Again, this is sort of a Bacon question and I’m sorry to do that to you.

I can understand why you would.

He seems to subscribe to the idea that design can actually, whether it can fix or ameliorate social problems, it can at least address them. Do you think that that’s true?

Well, it’s not in vogue to the extent that it was when he was coming up. When he was coming up, this was a time when there were physical projects that were thought that if you build this kind of housing you will be able to change communities for the better and this is the key to it. There were people like Clarence Stein who did Radburn [New Jersey] and Catherine Bauer, the great housing advocate who subscribed to [the idea that] physical change was the key. And you can see that reflected in all the language of Urban Renewal and the 1949 Redevelopment Act and all those things.

That’s not how we think of the world today. We’re working in a very different period. Sure, there are obviously design solutions that have an impact on social issues but we just don’t think about it in the same way that they did back then.

What do you think is different now? What sort of aspects of that thinking have been discredited?

Well, I write about this in my book, but in the sixties there was a whole movement around social planning and social science as a response to a very physical view of the world. So you had a lot more focus on public health and on issues like poverty and economic opportunity. What we understand today is that the issues that communities face are multi-faceted and deal with a whole variety of not just physical but social and economic issues that are tied together and correlated in all kinds of ways.

I used to work at the Enterprise Center, where I was the head of their community development corporation. This was right before I got there but they had worked on the Walnut Hill community plan, which they’re now doing an update on. One of the things that I loved about that plan, which is being mirrored in a number of plans afterward, was that they had a section on physical plan and on social factors. So not only was this a plan saying we want to see senior housing here, we want to see intersection changes here, but also saying that we want to build the capacity of the local community association. We want to create a neighborhood outreach team so that we can get resources and take these city programs into people’s homes. It was a whole combination of those things.

I can say this because I came in after the planning process was over, I thought that was a particularly well thought-out plan and I think that’s just how we think of it today. Planning isn’t just physical. Planning is physical, social, and economic.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal