Q&A: Helen Gym on Vision Zero, Council politics, and how the school funding debate ties into planning

Continuing our Agenda 2015 series, PlanPhilly will be publishing Q&A’s with potential City Council newcomers talking about their views on a range of city planning and built environment topics. For the first interview, we spoke with Helen Gym about her thoughts on tax reform, the 10-year tax abatement, and the politics of street safety. 

PlanPhilly: It was surprising to see how different the Council challengers were who ended up breaking through this year. How was your path to victory different from some of the others?

Helen Gym: For each of the At-Large races, knowing the electorate was going to be the same as it usually is, you could pull out your own path to victory. And so just because Allan Domb got elected, that doesn’t have anything to do with my race. For Derek Green and I, I think someone did an analysis of our races and we got completely different voters. Every place that Derek did really well, I did not do that well. Everywhere that I did well, he did very poorly. I think it shows you that you can actually win if you understand your own path. In the at-large races, I think you can do something a little bit different. I find it interesting how this race did and didn’t reinforce some of the traditional conceptions of how people win. Derek Green won with the number one ballot position, and I won with number seventeen. Allan Domb won with sick amounts of money, but I ran a grassroots campaign and won my first time at this. 

PP: You had some interesting points about Vision Zero during the campaign, particularly the opportunities for political movement-building around that from your position on Council. Why is that issue important to you?.

HG: For me, I relate to Vision Zero because of how I look at issues of immigration, poverty and connecting folks. And I think that the more the Vision Zero concept [a cross-agency education, enforcement, and design effort to cut traffic deaths in half over 4 years] moves off paper and moves into the lived experiences of people who need to have a safe and connected city, the more powerful it’s going to be. There’s 33% of Philadelphians who don’t own a car for example. And there are more young people biking, and immigrants who use bikes. Especially in a city in which many undocumented people don’t have driver’s licenses, it matters to have a policy that overlaps and engages with a diverse range of communities and fits within their experiences. That’s how policies come to life, and I try to look at Vision Zero from that perspective.

PP: So the policy change feeds back into the politics. The groups you mentioned–younger voters and immigrants–seem to be on the upswing over time, in terms of their share of the population, but they also tend to vote at lower rates

HG: Well I know there’s been a concerted effort to change that – to engage and to continue to politically mobilize our communities. And the challenge now that we’re past Election Day is making sure that people aren’t just voting. I see opportunities for political engagement of communities that have been long marginalized and silenced within the city going well beyond electoral politics. It’s really got to be about broader political civic engagement, and that’s just a different level than getting people to come out for an election.

I really appreciated Vision Zero because there was the potential to have a solid policy rooted in data and analysis. And the really exciting aspect of it is connecting it with the experiences of communities that can make that effort take off, and take off within diverse communities. So Vision Zero can be an anti-poverty initiative. It can be an immigrant friendly initiative. It can be something that urbanists and designers and planners can appreciate as well, but it isn’t just a policy issue. It’s very much going to have to move politically.

PP: We already talked about the parking tax. Is that something that you’re going to continue to push now that you got elected? [Ed. since this interview, a Council committee passed a 12.5% hike in the parking tax, higher than what Gym proposed in her campaign plan.)

HG: Yes. It’s something that I’ve been talking actively with different Council folks as well. I believe that school funding goes hand in hand with smart development and fair taxation. And it’s really important for us to be able to make those broader connections. It’s not just about getting more money for schools. We can establish policies at the same time that improve our visual amenities, and shape development in the way we want it to go, and also discourage development that just really harms Philadelphia.

I do think that it’s too cheap for folks to sit on land in this city and this is really a precursor to taking a look at land value taxation and how we do it in ways that are smart and fair to diverse groups across the city. Putting some of this stuff out there and having it backed up by a host of different organizations is going to make it a lot more compelling. And the challenge isn’t always about whether an idea is good or bad. It’s more often about making it become a priority.

PP: It’s been a bit odd to see this conventional wisdom emerge that you’ll clash too much with other members of City Council to get much done, when you’ve got this record as an advocate of being good at tactically pulling people together into coalitions to support different initiatives. How are your relationships with incumbent City Council members at this point?

HG: Evolving. But seriously I never think of things as being static. I don’t think that there are any permanent friendships or any permanent enemies when it comes to politics. And I do think relationships have to evolve over time. There are many people who raise those kinds of questions that don’t actually understand my work. I try to think about moving things in a political atmosphere where it’s about creating a sense of urgency and feel like a priority people need to take action on. 

I find often that people respect you when they understand where you’re coming from. They may not like it and they may completely disagree with you, and they’ll say that to your face. And that’s fine too. I’ve always felt that it’s very important that principles are clear and integrity is clear on issues. Integrity, maintaining the same values over time, and finding the right level to compromise on things. I think it’s important that I have a level of clarity to my position and what I’m trying to do.

I want to make sure Council has the most information available to make the decisions they want to make. We’ll be able to have the funding conversation year-round, rather than the annual frustration that keeps coming up each May where people say they don’t know enough about the budget. Well that won’t be the case if I’m there, because we’ll know about the budget and I’ll be talking about it a lot.

PP: What’s your position on the 10-year tax abatement for new construction?

HG: I think it’s one of the broadest, most generous tax abatement programs in the country, and a decade ago, I think it made a whole lot of sense to do, and there’s no question that it’s helped development. I understand the power of the abatement process for development, and what I also think we know after many years of doing the abatement is that it’s had enormous consequences, particularly around school funding issues. It’s also had an impact on the concentrations of development and the types of development that we’ve seen.

I think that after so many years of having done the abatement program, it’s important to review and adjust, and determine what we want it to look like in the future. And so I would like to see a much more strategically targeted abatement, rather than a blanket abatement program. When I went all over the city and heard from voters about this issue, this is a very serious issue for a lot of people. They feel that the abatement program is inequitably and unfairly applied. It concentrates development, and certain types of development, in specific neighborhoods and leaves out others. This is where the At-Large seat really matters. We should be looking at how the program impacts the city overall, and that should be a constructive conversation–not one that’s threatening to the development community. 

I’m not looking to make assumptions or move hastily on this, but I want to take a look at who is benefitting from the program, and that it’s effective at increasing development opportunities in other parts of the city. Now, other incoming Council members have proposed expanding the abatement to 20 years, and I really don’t see where the data would support something like that, but everything is up for conversation, and I’m certainly going to bring data and research to the table and I fully expect that my colleagues will do the same. But I don’t want the conversation to be based on assumptions or entitlements, because that’s not really helpful.

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