Rebuild team reveals specifics on site selections and nonprofit roles; Council skeptical

In the months before Jim Kenney became the mayor, the project that would become Rebuild started up as data-driven research, taking stock of the city’s universe of parks, rec centers, libraries, playgrounds, and older adult centers and their neighborhood contexts. That data and subsequent analysis was executed by a team of planning and design consultants in partnership with the Kenney administration and managed by Nicole Westerman, who was named Rebuild’s executive director in November. The result was a first look at which sites across the city might boost equity and economic development with an influx of investment. After Rebuild was given a name and a hefty potential allowance (projected at $500 million), that inventory was viewed by some people as a sign the project would bring some new-school approaches to the age-old tradition of capital spending.

The data- and values-driven analysis that has informed the administration’s approach to Rebuild was executed by a team of consultants led by Interface Studio. But the role this research will ultimately play in Rebuild site selection remains murky. The early goal was to develop a framework to guide decision making and help prioritize site selection for Rebuild investment, and ideally enable Rebuild to launch more quickly. But now that plans call for District Councilmembers to sign off on any Rebuild sites in their districts, it’s unclear how much that baseline research will influence resource allocation. It’s also a reminder of how little of Rebuild’s site selection process is actually set in stone.

That became clear last Friday, when members of the city’s Rebuild team, including Westerman, held a detailed press briefing to explain the ins and outs of the administration’s plans for selecting Rebuild sites. Afterward, the office of City Council President Darrell Clarke responded to PlanPhilly’s questions and pushed back on the administration’s briefing:

“There is nothing in the legislation that addresses the site selection process,” said Jane Roh, communications director for City Council President Darrell Clarke, in an email. Roh was referring to the crucial ordinance introduced into Council last month that would need to be passed before the city could issue $300 million in bonds, the lynchpin of Rebuild’s funding. The legislation would allow the city to lease its parks and rec facilities to the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (PAID), the public authority that issues the bonds. In turn, PAID would sublease the facilities to city-approved nonprofits that would hold the contracts for Rebuild work. “ [The bill] does authorize the wholesale, unprecedented transfer of public parks, recreation centers, and libraries to a quasi-governmental agency which is further authorized to sublease these public facilities for terms up to eight years with an option to sell – all with no legislative oversight or authorization or public hearing required,” Roh said. “Newspaper reports are not legislation, nor are PowerPoint presentations or press briefings, and I would urge reporters to understand the difference.”

Bristling at the press briefing would seem to be further indication of Clarke’s unresolved misgivings about the structure of Rebuild. It’s not the first time that he has thrown shade at the Kenney administration’s forays into winning over public and councilmanic support. As PlanPhilly reported last December, Clarke wrote a memo to his colleagues in Council that laid out concerns regarding possible project leadership by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Free Library Foundation, two nonprofits that the administration envisioned managing Rebuild projects in lieu of the city’s own departments that traditionally deal with capital spending, long criticized as slow bureaucracies. Working through nonprofits, rather than directly through the city, would also skirt the city’s strict procurement rules (that City Council has also sought to change), which could complicate the diversity and inclusion goals. The administration pivoted at the end of February, reportedly in an attempt at compromise, dropping the idea that the Conservancy and the Foundation would be the chief nonprofit overseers of Rebuild, while maintaining that the city would lean on the broader nonprofit sector.

The revised proposal, explained in detail by Westerman and company last Friday, calls for an undefined amount of nonprofits to be “project users” on Rebuild sites, in charge of design and construction contracts for the physical improvements. If the administration has its way, how would a nonprofit become a project user? And how would your neighborhood park become eligible for a makeover? They’d be determined by two parallel processes.

Rebuild-eligible sites. In the administration’s proposal, the Rebuild team and Council would jointly prioritize which rec centers, parks, and libraries are eligible for an upgrade. The city says these sites will be mutually agreed upon based on property’s condition, uses, and the project’s potential to improve equity and stimulate economic growth in those neighborhoods — a choice rooted in the analysis done by Interface that also would value Council’s district-level knowledge. Community input and neighborhood-level data regarding household growth, health, and poverty will inform the decisions, but City Council would be a partner in the decision-making, Westerman said. “What we’ve asked each Council member to do is let us know what the 10 or so sites that are the top priorities for them. Our proposal is that they give us their list of priorities and we line that up against all of the information that we’ve gathered and see how they compare.” As the project carries on, the list of eligible sites will be revisited and replenished.  

Project users. Should the bond ordinance go through, the city would then release a request for qualifications (RFQ) to solicit nonprofits that would like to be “project users”. Those nonprofits would have to be high capacity, with proven fundraising prowess, experience with community engagement, and the ability to manage grants of more than $5 million. This would likely narrow the field of qualifying nonprofits to larger ones, such as community development corporations, although the Rebuild team wouldn’t speculate on which types of organizations would ultimately be approved.

Passing the qualification process would give those nonprofits the chance to submit proposals to work on one or more of the eligible Rebuild sites. City Council and the administration would vet those applications, and the nonprofits would need to demonstrate how they would meet the project’s significant diversity and inclusion goals.

“We’re hoping that City Council will approve ordinances sometime before July 1. That would be a point at which we could release RFQ,” Westerman said.

From the administration’s perspective, this structure has several advantages. It would subvert the city’s traditional, slow-moving bureaucracies for implementing capital projects, namely, the procurement and capital spending offices. Secondly, Westerman said, it would help accomplish Rebuild’s goal of awarding 40 percent of all contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses. “We’re hoping that if we’re very clear about the goals and the standards, we will have different project users almost competing for ways of meeting those goals and doing better than each other,” Westerman said.

But there is lingering dissent within Council. Members have criticized the administration’s plans as lacking public accountability, namely, sufficient input from Council and the public in site selection. For critics, the initial data analysis remains a symbol of that frustration. “If we find that the data has yielded valuable information, we will certainly use it. However, I believe the administration could have saved money by just conferring with council members from the outset,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “We have an intimate understanding of the conditions and needs of our facilities. I have hosted community meetings in rec centers with broken HVAC systems, leaky roofs, and wires are dangling from the ceiling. I know which sites need help.” Bass’s office confirmed that while she had reviewed the baseline site analysis for her district, she didn’t agree with some of its cost estimates and recommendations. Last week, Councilwoman Bass announced the formation of an 8th District Rebuild Community Engagement Committee that will be tasked with making recommendations for site improvements, along with watchdog efforts to monitor Rebuild in her district.

“We want to make sure that as many residents as possible are able to provide input,” said David Gould, Rebuild’s Deputy Director for Community Engagement and Communications. “We know that City Council members have great relationships with residents in their district …  we fully expect them to lead engagement efforts and play a primary role in that.”

For its part, the administration’s Rebuild team said that it would engage with the public on several fronts, although it will also lean on Council to do so. One way, Westerman says, would be an oversight committee — comprised of Council members, community leaders, and members of the administration— that would hold quarterly public meetings to publicly present Rebuild progress reports: construction updates, financial reporting, and metrics for diversity and inclusion. Westerman said these meetings would also give members of the public to speak, ask questions, and have their questions answered.

At this point, the Rebuild team and Council have begun to discuss the first slate of Rebuild sites, which are expected to be announced in mid-2017. This first pool will be decidedly smaller than in future phases, in part because the city will not issue bonds until the court challenge to the city’s soda tax has been resolved. Westerman said to expect roughly four to eight projects in this initial round, which will be paid for with a pool of funds independent of the bonds — $8 million reserved in the city’s capital budget for FY2017 and what remains of the $4.8 million start-up grant from the William Penn Foundation.

There’s no guarantee that all City Council districts will receive equal money or an equal number of projects from Rebuild. “The reality that we have found through the planning work of understanding neighborhoods and physical conditions is that the physical needs and the needs of neighborhoods is not equal in every district,” says Westerman.

Roh is correct that press briefings aren’t legislation, but the administration has no intentions of shifting on the fundamentals of Rebuild’s structure or goals.

“We put our proposed selection process in writing and shared it with Council to show our commitment to a formal process,” says Gould. “We remain committed to that process and would welcome discussions with Councilmembers regarding other ways to formalize the site selection process.”

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