Q&A: Doug Oliver on the 10-year tax abatement, Vision Zero, and Philly’s waterfront

We spoke with mayoral candidate Doug Oliver at his campaign office in the Bellevue earlier this week about a wide range of topics, including the role of city planning in retaining younger workers, waterfront redevelopment, the 10-year-tax abatement, Vision Zero, and more. Head over here to read the full transcript. Here are some highlights from the interview organized by topic.

On retention of younger workers as a strategy for restoring the city’s tax base

“It’s not even that the message is targeted to younger voters, as much as it is about them. Because when we talk about the issues the city’s going to have to address––pensions, health care, schools, public safety, sustainability––these longer term issues, they cannot be solved as long as you have this population churn.”

“You want to grow your population, you want to grow your tax base––you’ve got to get more people to live here. So the idea is to plan for Millennials, more than appeal to Millennials. If we don’t retain them, then we’re going to have trouble delivering city services to a population that has the least amount of money to pay for them.”

On the importance of density for urban vitality

“Planning is a forward-looking process, obviously. I think recently the city’s done a good job of trying to get their arms around what that actually means as a practical matter. I think for an urban environment like Philadelphia, with so many young people and empty nesters coming into the city, we need to focus on the density of the city––the number of the people and their closeness and proximity to each other.”

On the importance of mixed-income ridership for the political economy of public transit

“One of the things I’ve always liked about New York City is that everybody uses everything. It’s not public transportation just for the poor, because if that was the case, that would be the last thing invested in. But because you have the Mayor, a bum, a millionaire, a blue collar worker, and a tourist all on the same train, at all hours of the day and night, you see different priorities.”

On the waterfront

“Access to the waterfront is something that’s been wrestled with for many years. It’s not just for private development, it is for the use of our city. Many cities have gotten it right––Baltimore and Washington’s waterfronts are fantastic. What makes them so great is you’ve got your tourists and your residents, all types of people enjoying it and walking around having a good time.

“When I close my eyes and envision what our waterfront could look like, it’s much more lively. I see live music, bands, cafes, people going on walks whether they have money to spend or not. I see first dates––people deciding I like it here, I met you here, I want to marry you here, and I want to live here.”

On breaking the cycle of waterfront land speculation

“There is public access to the waterfront, and while we should encourage those who own private land to do something in the public interest, we should at least maximize those things that we can do on our own. So, finding those three, four, or five entry points to the waterfront and making it clear and obvious that this is what we’re doing. Working with traffic engineers and planning so people know this is all open to you, and these are the key places to access.”

“And then the hope is that people’s brains start working and they get to thinking they can take advantage of this foot traffic, and that’s when we start to see businesses and residences start to pop up. A lot of people sit on the property because it’s not ripe to develop yet. We need to show them a capital plan and a budget for the next several years for that area and hopefully that will move the process forward.”

“In the cases where the private developers and governments are looking and saying “who first?” in those cases it must be government. If you have to incentivize with tax credits, we could do that for a while until things get moving and then stop. I’m not a huge fan of tax incentives for development that’s going to happen anyway but looking at our waterfront, we see that it’s not happening.”

On the possibility of a more targeted 10-year tax abatement

Maybe we don’t need tax incentives in Center City anymore, maybe we don’t need them in Fishtown or other places that are in a virtuous cycle of development. In the places where it’s not happening, let’s seed it […]

I think it’s a very effective tool, but we need to be mindful of how we apply it. Does it have to be 10 years? 10 years is a pretty long time to forego a return.

When we say “hey, come build here and develop here and you don’t have to pay anything for 10 years”––ouch! Because taxes are how we pay for the rest of the city services, and you have to be careful about what you waive when you still have a very very low-income city to fund […]

Could it be based on Community Development Block Grant areas, that take into consideration some of the economic realities? It’s a tool, but it’s a hammer, and it’s not necessarily what you need for every scenario.

On whether the new Comcast tower should have received public funding

It is a challenging question, because here’s our pride and joy, our corporate jewel. And we expect a lot out of them. I don’t think we demand enough, there’s no teeth to it, but they bring a tremendous benefit and cache to the city of Philadelphia, much like our colleges and universities.”

“You have people here who are expanding, like private developers that are organized as non-profits, so they’re not paying taxes but they bring other value, and Comcast brings other value but they get these subsidies. And I guess I don’t have a problem with doing it when you can, but when you can’t, you can’t.”

“The question is, would Comcast have enough money to build this on its own without government?  I think they would. But so it’s a negotiation. They didn’t have to build their second tower here, they didn’t have to build their first tower here. They have high levels of financial resources, but they also have high levels of choice. And so we are competing. And using money strategically to compete, I don’t have a problem with that, but when it starts to come at the expense of our other obligations, it’s a challenge.”

The benefit of the investment has to accrue to the benefit of Philadelphia so we get the money back from that investment in the form of higher wage taxes, real estate taxes, people buying things and spending money, making Philadelphia more vibrant.

On the legislative politics of zoning

“I think one thing Mayor Nutter and Eva Gladstein did very well was to completely overhaul zoning. It was an amazing lift that they were able to get that passed. Especially in a city where we’ve got 10 council districts and pouncilmanic prerogative. And while I think there’s always going to be some inherent tension between what we say we want to do as a broad brush across the city and what people want to do about individual projects in their districts, I think the purpose of the overhaul was to make sure going to the Zoning Board of Adjustments was the exception and not the rule.

“So at least we have this basic and broad understanding of where we want to go. So I think the Mayor’s done a lot of good with the overhaul, but now it’s got to be applied. As the Mayor you can’t go to Council and just dictate––you just can’t––but you can say “remember what we agreed on? We have a commitment to apply the same thinking that caused you to vote yes on this to what you vote yes for under your own Prerogative.”

“Without knowing the specific reasons for some of the objections [to individual remapping bills] I would ask what I could do on my end to make it easier for them to pass these bills. I would try to paint a picture of where I’m trying to go, and what I’m trying to accomplish, and ask them how they see their plan fitting into that, and how I could adjust mine to fit theirs to find some common ground. Starting off respecting the person who’s in the position and understanding why they’re in the position is critical to negotiation. It’s just persuasion 101.”

On bike share

“I met with the Bicycle Coalition, and it was an interesting conversation, because I think I was probably their worst enemy going in but I might be their best friend coming out. Because I had to acknowledge some of my own tendencies and thought processes about driving and about public safety.”

“Something as simple as the infrastructure can really change the way people behave. One thing we talked about was how speed limits don’t necessarily drive the behavior that you want and so physical space actually can. So pinching intersections, physical space for bike lanes I think is a good idea, obviously balanced with communities that don’t necessarily want to see their road pinched even more. I think some of the challenge with their agenda is it is viewed as a “war on cars” and I don’t know that it has to be.”

“So when we talk about bike share, I like that it’s expanding. Zone One is in Center City, and that made it a little bit of a divisive issue, like something you’re giving to rich folks that you’re not giving to everyone else.”

“What I really liked was Zone Two. But how you present it to neighborhoods is going to be crucial. We want to say “we’re bringing to you what’s been very successful here” rather than “I’m not worried about you getting shot in your neighborhoods, but I do want you to have a bike.” Because if that’s the case, it doesn’t match what people’s concerns are. But if it’s presented as access to jobs, access to groceries, less expensive and time consuming, then it’s in a context that will make sense to people.”

On Vision Zero

Your goal should be zero. We used to talk about this at Philadelphia Gas Works all the time with preventable motor vehicle accidents (PVAs) and our board would always be saying “why do we have a goal of six? Why isn’t it zero?” And there’s always a debate about whether the goal should be a realistic target or the ideal. I think it’s required that you have a Vision Zero policy because it’s hard enough to get people thinking about these things to have a mayor come in and be thinking about this in an underachieving way.

“I think it is a way of framing the way people think about this. It’s basically an investment on further decisions, because if you get people to think this way, then it’s easier to pitch them the ideas that we think may be harder to swallow. At least there’s a framework for it. So I’m a fan of it, and I think some of the recommendations they’ve had––raised crosswalks to start to slow people down, automated speed enforcement ….”

“When you get a ticket at a red light traffic stop, you respect that traffic stop forever. And I got a $100 ticket at Broad and Hunting Park. I will never––you start to know where they are and it’s such a mental impact on the way I approach things. Automated speed enforcement is something that gives people something to think about and doesn’t require police officers to be there and lets them go where they need to be for other reasons.”

On MOTU and whether he’d continue the Deputy Mayor system

“I’m not sure at this point. I was there in this administration for the first three years and I think I understand why he organized it that way and I think there are lots of benefits of clustering city services under a Deputy Mayor who’s responsible for them and so they’re not operating in silos. One of the challenges to it though is I think it minimized the role of commissioners to a certain extent. And it also added another expensive layer onto government. The question is: was the return on that investment worth it? I’m certainly not at a point where I’m going to say I’m not doing it, but I need to take a look at it. Maybe we cluster things differently.”

“Maybe there’s a way of reconfiguring things, and as Council President Clarke looks at the reconfiguration of the planning departments and commissions, I think it’s always useful to keep your eyes open to see if there’s a better way of doing things.”

On Darrell Clarke’s government reorganization plan

I’m not familiar with the details of it, and I haven’t had any conversations with him, but he is a sitting Council President, and I think it’s City Council’s job as much as it is the Mayor’s job is to think about how to improve the city.”

“So I don’t have a problem with people kicking around ideas, and also whether the Council President and the Mayor both wanted it, it’s still got to go to the people. And that’s why I’m such a proponent of getting Philadelphians engaged, because if you don’t go to the polls, you don’t have a say in the reorganization of your government. I don’t have a problem with the idea of reorganization though, and if I’m a successful candidate I’ll sit down with the Council President and see what he’s trying to do.”

On Council approval of Department heads

I think when you’re Mayor and you’re making appointments you have to take into consideration the people those appointments have to serve. And perhaps that’s happened informally with a gentleman’s agreement for many years, but I see some benefit in codifying that. I worked in the Department of Public Welfare at the state and all of the Governor’s appointees are confirmed. Because the general sense is, you’re responsible for such a wide swathe of government that it’s appropriate for legislators to have some say-so. There’s some question about how people will be when they come in, so people are trying to jockey so they can be at the table. I’m not mayor yet, but I’m thinking about council, and I think everybody wants to be considered. I’d be interested in sitting down with the council president to get a better sense of what he’s thinking.”

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