Q&A: Jim Kenney on public transportation, pedestrian safety, and South Philly’s organized chaos

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. Read the full interview here. Here are a few highlights arranged by topics of interest.

How working for architecture firm Vitetta has shaped his views on planning:

“It has certainly shaped my views on preservation. First of all, I think we should have a stronger, more vibrant preservation attitude. I think that the Historical 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 Historical 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.”

On the impetus for his historic preservation bill:

“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.”

On his plans for finishing zoning remapping:

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.”

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.”

On Darrell Clarke’s government reorganization proposal:

“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.”

On securing vacant buildings:

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 […]”

“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.”

On Michael Nutter’s planning legacy:

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.”

On the zoning code:

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.”

What he’ll be looking for in Zoning Board of Adjustment appointees:

“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.”

On his plans for the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities:

“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.”

On bike share and bike safety:

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 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.”

On pedestrian safety and construction site sidewalk blockages:

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 […]”

“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.”

On a Vision Zero approach to pedestrian safety:

“I’m not schooled on 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.”

“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.”

On making Philadelphia a more immigration-friendly city:

“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.”

“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.”

On the immigration-fueled revival of the Italian Market:

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.”

On South Philadelphia:

“You can’t organize it 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 why 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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