Q&A: Council candidate Andrew Stober on bike share politics, Councilmanic prerogative, and the vacant land problem nobody’s talking about

Back in June we reported that Andrew Stober, former chief of staff at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, would be making an independent run for an At-Large City Council seat. This week we sat down with Stober to check in on the state of his campaign, how his record from his time in the Nutter administration is playing politically, and what is left on the planning reform agenda for the next Mayor and Council. It was a long interview, so we pulled out some highlights below. You can read the full Q&A transcript here

PlanPhilly: How do you think your experience serving in the Nutter administration would translate into serving on Council?

Andrew Stober: You know, I understand how the executive branch of government works, and the principal job of Council members At-Large is oversight of the executive branch. So I understand very well how the budget works, both the capital budget and the operating budget, I understand how department operations work. I’m prepared to ask the tough questions of departments, and I know how to navigate the city systems. I’ve led big changes and I know how those kinds of things can happen inside city government. And I also bring that perspective to preparing legislation, so we have legislation that’s not just symbolic but can have an impact on how systems work.

PP: Do you have an example of that type of legislation?

AS: Not specifically for legislation, but for example, I’ve called for quarterly public hearings with the school district where we are bringing in the SRC and the administration to give the public and Council an update on the budget, so we have no surprises come June and can start preparing for what the school district will need early on. And also to allow us to take deep dives on issues facing the school district that are beyond dollars. Whether it’s the closing of the Solis-Cohen elementary school, or the school district’s capital program, oversight of charter schools, instructional issues— given how much money we’re giving to the SRC, it seems like four public hearings a year is the least we should be doing, in addition to all the work that might go on behind the scenes to prepare for those.

I think that’s key because I know from having worked inside an administration you focus on what you’re getting questioned about. Especially when you know that questioning is coming more than once a year, and you know that the people asking those questions are serious about getting to the same place you want to get: a stronger education system for our kids.

It’s also important because of the message it sends to Harrisburg, the federal government, NS foundations about supporting the Philadelphia school district and recognizing that the City Council, the administration, and the SRC are working together toward the same goal. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree, but it means we’re all serious about getting there together.

It’s something that I experienced firsthand with the way we transformed our relationship with SEPTA. I think that was certainly part of SEPTA and other transit agencies across the Commonwealth getting the largest increase in transit funding in the history of the Commonwealth. When very skeptical legislators in Harrisburg looked to our region, they saw that the city and SEPTA were on the same page and they were getting the same story from everybody about how we were working together. And it built a trust among folks who were normally very skeptical of sending money to our region that the money was going to be spent well. We need to do that with the school district.

PP: The improved relationship with SEPTA is one of the areas we want to look closely at as we review the Nutter administration’s impact on a variety of different areas of planning after this fall’s election.

AS: I think it’s important to make clear that the transportation legacy of the Nutter administration is more than bike lanes. We made vast improvements in the state of good repair of Philadelphia’s transportation infrastructure and a considerable improvement in planning processes and outcomes and collaboration with partners to achieve those. And the SEPTA story I think is the most important story. What the city and SEPTA have done working together is unprecedented: the tens of millions of dollars in competitive grant funding that we’ve brought in together. Don’t get me wrong: there’s still plenty to do to improve SEPTA service in the city, but compared to where we were eight years ago, no less 15 or 20 years ago, we are in a much better place.

One example of that is the lease agreement between SEPTA and the city—and this gets into the real policy geekdom minutiae—where we finally clarified the relationship between the city and SEPTA. We have all of this infrastructure that the city inherited but SEPTA operates and that was finally sorted out. And we also transformed the relationship at the operational and the personal level.

When I first started at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, I was talking to senior SEPTA supervisors weekly on any range of issues, and eventually it got to the point where it was flowing through the whole organization, where SEPTA supervisors and Streets and Water Department supervisors are all just calling each other on their cell phones solving problems and concerns. When we first arrived, things weren’t getting dealt with, things were getting escalated to our level that shouldn’t have, and now there’s the kind of trust that everyone is working together, and we take each other’s concerns seriously, hear each other out when we disagree, and there’s this common recognition that these are all our customers.

PP: What are some things City Council can do to improve transit in the city? It often feels like the transit conversation on Council is limited to money, but we’re starting to see other cities getting more interested in streets prioritization and other issues where there’s a municipal role.

AS: On the oversight front, I really think Council needs to make pedestrian safety, and really the safety of everybody traveling, a top priority. Based on numbers I saw recently, there were more pedestrians injured by drivers in 2014 than there were shootings in Philly. [Ed. Note: Stober provided documentation that there were 1,548 pedestrian injuries and 1,047 shootings that year.] It is a serious public safety and public health problem and it needs serious attention.  And we know what needs to be done—it’s a combination of engineering, enforcement, and education. On Council, there’s a real opportunity if I’m elected to be a leader on getting the next administration focused on this issue.

Like so many other public health issues, it disproportionately affects low income communities and communities of color, and at the same time, it affects the entire city. I’d like to see City Council add the $5 vehicle registration fee to pay for street safety improvements. It’s not a game-changing amount of money but it’s a meaningful addition to the budget. And we have to make sure there’s a “maintenance of effort” so the budget folks don’t look at it and try to cut $3 million somewhere else because we have this new $3 million. This money shouldn’t be replacing dollars.

I also think, as I described in my capital budget plan, that we can free up the Council-directed dollars to be spent on parks and recreation projects, along with district improvements, and create a bonus for Councilmembers who are willing to do participatory budgeting, which I think is an important opportunity to bring in voices that don’t traditionally get heard in the budget process to have a meaningful contribution.

PP: You’ve been running on bike share as one of your major professional accomplishments. How is that issue playing politically on the campaign trail?

AS: I have honestly been surprised at how well it plays everywhere. People know about, they’re excited about it, they think it’s great for the city whether they’ve used it or not. It appeals to people for lots of different reasons. I was talking to a group of business leaders, all older folks, many of whom don’t even live in the city or use the system. But what they really liked was how we were able to execute a public-private partnership to launch a world-class amenity in the city. The city put up $3 million, we raised over $16 million in foundation and corporate funding, and there’s no ongoing taxpayer support for the system. Obviously it resonates with people concerned about equity. We’ve really built a system that’s working for everyone within the operating area. People are using it, they like it, they aren’t getting hurt, the bikes aren’t getting stolen.

PP: We’ve been interested in how well some of the urbanism themes can be packaged as political issues and campaign messages. Have you found any snappy ways to communicate some of these ideas?

AS: One thing I’ve been talking about a lot on the campaign trail—I call it the “vacant land problem nobody’s talking about”—are the vastly under-assessed vacant lots. Everyone who’s a homeowner or a business owner in this city is stuck with a higher tax bill for it.

The example I like to use is a lot a few blocks up from Pat’s and Geno’s. All the taxes are paid on it, it’s well-maintained, and nobody thinks of it as a problem vacant lot. But it’s a huge problem because it’s going to sell for something like $175,000, and it’s assessed for $18,000. And this isn’t because they have some special deal with the Councilman. You can find these lots all over the city, and it’s because in AVI when we made significant progress getting far better assessments, we moved to this land value formula that doesn’t in any way reflect the actual value of land. And it creates this tremendous subsidy for speculators. We can debate all day long about whether subsidies for development are a good idea, but I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks subsidies for speculators is a good idea. I haven’t met that person.

PP: How did we get it so wrong?

AS: They had so much to fix, and this is not about the folks at the assessment office being incompetent. They had so much to fix, they fixed a lot of it, and I’m just saying that this is the next big thing. One of the unintentional outcomes was this huge subsidy for speculators. Another problem with it is, for those who aren’t paying their taxes, these very small tax liens piling up with no incentive to bring them to Sheriff’s sale.

PP: Because they prioritize collecting the high value liens first?

AS: Yes. And the other point is that, with respect to the tax abatement, if you undervalue the land, you overvalue to the building, so more is abated. We’re making the abatement worth more than it really is. And we’ve gotten a lot deeper into policy than I usually do on the campaign trail, but it’s just not fair that someone owns a piece of property where the market price is $175,000 and they’re paying taxes on it like it’s worth $18,000. That’s just not right.

PP: To go even deeper, what exactly is wrong with the formula?

AS: My understanding is that it works sort of ok for structures. You get a total value for the property, and then you say that 80% is the structure, and 20% is the land value. And that may or may not be right in different places, but it’s never going to work on a vacant lot. Because if you look at all the comparables on the block, and say land is 20%, and then that’s the assessment for the vacant lot on the block—you can look at the sale prices and see what vacant lots are selling for in that neighborhood. It’s not that hard. The assessment ought to be the most recent sale price, especially if it’s something that’s been sold in recent years.

PP: AVI was one of several big agenda items Nutter ran on that were completed during his term—what’s still left on the agenda?

AS: Obviously the waterfront is a big piece. But I think an even bigger piece for the city as a whole is that we made such progress on setting up planning processes with the district plans, and really modernizing our whole planning system, so just keeping the momentum on all of that. We did the really hard work of updating the zoning code and our planning processes and now we have to keep that going.

Also Roosevelt Boulevard. We now have the money to do a really serious plan for Roosevelt Blvd, something that will really shape the future of Northeast Philadelphia over the next 50 to 100 years for hundreds of thousands of people. It needs as much political attention as it does planning attention. Many of these neighborhoods are really dynamic, changing places.

PP: A lot of the planning and zoning issues fall under the purview of District Councilmembers because of Councilmanic prerogative. How can you engage on these issues as an At-Large Councilmember?

AS: You know there’s a lot of stuff that just goes through and it’s fine. The community’s in support, the developer is in support, and the Councilmember just wants the community to be happy. That’s most of the time, and then there are sometimes these flashpoint where developers and community members can’t agree, or communities are undergoing a lot of change and it requires elected officials to take leadership. And I will be someone who’s willing to work with District Councilmembers to provide support in whatever ways I can provide it, as someone who’s been through a lot of planning processes.

PP: You see it as more of a behind the scenes role.

AS: I think it’s more behind the scenes. As far as Councilmanic Prerogative, I think it can serve an important function, and often does, by forcing developers and communities to the table to resolve differences. I will always vote on the merits when bills come up, and I can think of a few cases where I might vote against a bill if the District Councilperson was really disregarding the interests of the city as a whole, or the interests of the community for whatever reason. The story of Frank DiCicco and the South Philly IKEA is a great example. Where IKEA and Lowe’s are today was all rail yards. And IKEA was willing to come in, but they said the rest of that area also needs to be developed as that kind of Big Box strip, to be drawing customers—they didn’t just want to come in by themselves. And at the time, Councilman DiCicco was getting a lot of pushback from the port, and port-related unions, who were concerned about losing that rail yard, and thinking it would destroy the future of the port.

So he was only willing to introduce the zoning change just for where IKEA is. And at the time, an At-Large Republican, Thacher Longstreth, introduced a bill that had the votes in Council to rezone the whole area. I think that’s a great example of something that had such citywide importance, in terms of bringing jobs. And you know, we can decide whether or not we want that style of development, but you can’t bicker with the construction jobs, and the long-term living wage jobs that come with a store like IKEA, and bringing an important set of amenities for homeowners living in a very densely populated area who were otherwise just driving to the suburbs. So there may be issues that come up where there’s truly a citywide interest, and a District Councilperson who isn’t willing to do it for whatever reason, and I would be willing to step up.

PP: Do you think the implementation of the 2012 Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan is an issue like that? The city’s bicycle network doesn’t begin or end in any one Council district, after all.

AS: I don’t know whether or not it’s time to revisit the section of the code that requires Council approval for bike lanes in certain cases. I’m not sure that’s something worth going to war over. I think the more effective way is to try to change the political dynamics.

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