Q&A: Milton Street on Michael Nutter, community planning, tax abatements, aging

On Tuesday morning, PlanPhilly sat down with Milton Street, the former state senator, two-time mayoral contender, and brother of former mayor John Street, for the last in our series of 2015 primary candidate interviews. We met at the McDonald’s at 22nd and Lehigh in North Philadelphia. Highlights from the conversation are below. For a fuller picture, read the unedited transcript here.

Also peruse our earlier interviews with Lynne Abraham, Melissa Murray Bailey, Nelson Diaz, Jim Kenney, Doug Oliver, and Anthony Williams.

On planning

An administration is only as strong as its workforce, so a mayor will not be able to have his fingers in, or have a hands-on approach to everything, every issue. So in terms of city planning, in terms of city development, I would hire the best mind available who’s educated in that area, who specializes in that area and he’ll make recommendations. And my interest would be that he did not have a policy that would elevate the taxes above poor people’s ability to be able to pay.

I would be concentrating on the gentrification. I wouldn’t want to advance gentrification.

We have a lot of poor people that own houses, but when we we have a lot of houses that are vacant we have to figure out a plan as to how to utilize those properties that are vacant but at the same time not utilize them in a way where it displaces the people who live there. So that would be the job of the experts in that area.

So getting your best minds and getting people who would come and sacrifice three or four years to developing an overall comprehensive plan that would be able to enhance the city from its development because when we develop the city, and we bring in the gentry, we raise taxes, right? And it puts more money in the city coffers. At the same time, it’s a catch 22.  

On seeking his brother’s counsel

Again, you’re not going to be any weaker or stronger than your workforce. So while I may not have the expertise to explain exactly what I’d do off the top of my head, I do have the skillset to be able to understand talent. And I have, again, a family member that’s been in the mayor’s office, who I would probably counsel with before I hired anybody. “What about this guy? What about this plan?” You know, so I have an advantage in having a member of the family that I can go have dinner with any time, talk with any time—we do all that together—and pick his brain.

On Nutter’s planning legacy

Yeah, you know, to me, it’s papier-mâché. It’s sort of like a cotton-candy approach to everything: it has no substance, but it gives people the illusion that you’re doing something when actually you’re not. I would like to have something that’s a little more substantive, a little more hands-on, a little more—people in the poor community, they don’t need any more talk. They need to see something tangible. And until you can give them something tangible, you have a serious problem.

On South Street in the 1970s

We’re talking about the ‘70s. There was a construction company called Southwark, who subcontracted a lot of work to this contractor named C.B. Buchanan. As a young teenager working my way through school, I used to work with him. And we went into these buildings on South Street—you know at the time, I’m naive, I’m thinking, “What in the hell is wrong with this raggedy thing? What are you gonna do with this?” I didn’t have the vision, or the understanding, or the information enough to understand that this was going to be a tourist avenue. The tourists go, “Where’s South Street?” You know? I remember Jim’s Steaks, he couldn’t sell five steaks a day. The guy’s a millionaire.

That was long-range planning at the time, obviously. I couldn’t understand that. Pine Street, Spruce Street—all of them, it was ghetto. Deteriorated. It was like bombs dropped through there, war lands, war-torn. But now, you go down there now, you’ll pay three, four hundred, five hundred thousand dollars for a property.

On balanced development

The city’s got to run, it’s got to operate, it needs money to operate. So you have to create that balance. And creating that balance is not easy. You get criticized. But there is a way that you can kind of create that balance by preserving some of the existing real estate stock, by not allowing all of the existing real estate stock to be recycled or be redeveloped.

The way I would attempt to have affordable housing is keeping costs down by preserving what we already have for low- and moderate-income people. If you don’t have to bring developers in—and you have to figure out a way now to intermix with the aesthetic appearance of the community, right? You’ve got to—you have a house that was built in the early 1900s as opposed to houses being built now, you have 100-year-old houses out there, how do you refurbish those houses? Not many of them are what you call brownstones, so you keep costs down and make them affordable for low- and moderate-income.

It’s a complex issue. And it’s an issue that can’t be just explained off the top of your head without doing some serious, serious …

On tax abatements

You take these tax abatement things, and you put them in writing, and then the press people, they later come back and say, “Oh, this is what you said then.” The political arena is fluid. Things change. But what I would do is, before I would give—and I don’t have a problem with putting this in writing: tax abatements should be associated with some type of employment and opportunity for poor people.

If you give somebody a tax abatement, they can’t use the fact that somebody has a felony—a non-violent felony—as a reason not to hire them. So I would have a clause in there where the recommendation for hiring would come directly from the mayor’s office. And if the employer had a problem, that problem would be referred to the mayor’s office to resolve, not a direct firing from the developer. Come on, we’re giving you millions of dollars in tax breaks, you’ve got to work with us and help develop this community, and stabilize it and give them an income.

On aging

We can’t stop the aging process, because it’s a natural thing, but you can put yourself in a position to be functional. Because when we get to a certain age is when we have all the experiences to share with young people. My experiences won’t help me. I’ve got to pass them on.

So what’s interesting to me is, when you pick up the Sunday paper, all the employers want experience, you know, but when you get guys, they say, “Oh you’ve got too much experience. You’re too old.”

“Hey I’ve got a lot of experience!”

“Yeah, but you’re too old.”

“I’m too old to share my experience?”

That doesn’t make a lot of sense, you know.

On billboards (unprovoked)

I had said this to one of the Council people. I said, “You’re going to run into a problem with those signs you’re putting up there. That [road] is run by the state, man.”

“Oh, nah, nah, nah.”

I said, “You watch.”

They got that stuff out there, and then all of a sudden, bam. But I knew that was going to happen. Or I anticipated it. You can’t ever know. But they didn’t get state authority for that, and if they had done their homework they would have known that there was federal moneys tied to—and you know, it’s just complicated.

On community policing and community institutions

So you have all this illegal activity going on because there’s no boundaries. There’s no civic organization. There’s nobody within the community that says, “Hold on, you’re out of bounds. No, we don’t have that here.” So you have to bring police in to try to set some order. And that’s what’s needed: organization of community.

When you have a group of people—whether they’re black, white, green, or yellow—who shoot each other, and are allowed to shoot each other without any internal repercussions, then if I hire you as a policeman and send you over there, the first thing your parents will tell you and everybody else: “Be careful, son, they shoot each other over there.”

So you hire these young people, 20, 21, and you set them down here in the middle of North Philly, they’re already mentally in an area where you get shot. If you’re walking across a field and somebody says, “There’s a lot of rattlesnakes out there,” you’ll be looking for the snakes. As soon as you hear a rattle, you’re going to start shooting. Doesn’t necessarily have to be a snake, right? The wind could blow a can!

But my point is you can’t blame police for framing an attitude that was created by the environment that they’re going into. So I’m going to respond to that environment.

… The police aren’t the problem. What has to happen is, you have to have a civic organization, or a separate community review board in each district because the districts are so different. So you can’t have one citywide civilian review board. They have to be district-based. And you establish a trust and a relationship with the police in that district, because everyone’s different.

So that’s the emphasis of my 4-14 community movement to stop the violence. We’ll hire people from the community where they live to patrol the community where they live and connect it directly with the Police Department to serve as a quick response and prevention tool. And they will not only be on the street to do that, they’ll identify abandoned houses, they’ll clean out alleys, put the trash on the sidewalk for the trash people. You know, when the trash people come along and put half in the bucket and half in the street, they’ll clean it up. We could control with all that.

On his role in the mayor’s race

What’s interesting to me, and a lot of people really don’t really wrap their heads around it, there’s issues—I’m so proud of being involved in this, because there’s issues being discussed that would never be discussed if I wasn’t in it.

News clips, they’ll respond to these little sentences, like Williams: “I want a city where hope thrives, poverty dies.” Boy, that’s a good one! It doesn’t make any sense. But unfortunately, when you represent the poor, you don’t raise enough money to respond to that stuff. And if you have a commitment or a passion or a purpose, you don’t sell yourself for some money to abandon your purpose.

But I think it’s going to be a surprise election. … From what I’m feeling out here on the street, people are tired of the same old quote-unquote B.S. I’ve had people tell me, “Milton, if you weren’t in, I wasn’t even going to vote.” A lot of them, not just a few of them. So they have these debates, they don’t even answer the questions, they just talk a lot of politics. Rather than talking to people, they’re talking politics. And people are picking up on it. I just don’t think you can ignore people for a long period of time and don’t feel, at some point, they’re going to rise up and fight back. And fight back.

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