Councilman Jones sets school closings, community development, crime and AVI as top priorities for 2013

Fast on the heels of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, NewsWorks sat down with Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. to consider the State of the Fourth Councilmanic District.

Jones’ district is both vast and multi-faceted: spanning from West Philadelphia to Upper Roxborough and divided by the Schuylkill River, it is as diverse in its geography as its population, which according to Jones’ staff contains roughly 150,000 residents, over 52,000 of whom live in the Northwest wards according to 2010 census figures.

While much of the discussion focuses on NewsWorks‘ coverage areas in Manayunk, Roxborough, and East Falls, many of the following points of discussion are relevant to the entire district and in some instances, the city at large.

The ‘elephant in the room,’ AVI

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Overall, Jones believes that an economic recovery is indeed underway, however slow it may seem. For him, the primary indicator of this is an increasing number of zoning permits.

While noting that the Fourth District has not been recession-proof – business corridors on both sides of the river have experienced varying degrees of sluggishness; the Market Street corridor in West Philadelphia was particularly hard hit – but the economic slights haven’t been as pronounced as those witnessed in other areas of the city.

Jones attributed some of this to the number of colleges and health care providers – so-called “eds and meds” – providers that permeate his district.

At the street level, the findings of the Actual Value Initiative await formal announcement, but are on the minds of many; indeed, Jones referred to AVI as being “the elephant in the room.”

Jones’ preliminary analysis is that the Fourth District will fare comparatively well, with assessments being relatively neutral and stable, the result of fairly accurate property values due to consistent sales activity.

Despite this, Jones said the Ridge Ave. commercial corridor is foremost on his mind, as the stability of the area may work against it: many properties have been owned for extended periods of time, which could result in some sticker shock when the AVI figures are released.

“We had feared the worst, but that ship has sailed,” observed Jones. “The next level is how to protect those still in jeopardy.”

Proposed school closings and safety precautions 

With ongoing debate over the School Reform Commission’s announcement to close dozens of schools in Philadelphia, the topic of schools is one of the most significant issues facing both policy makers and city residents in many neighborhoods.

While Lankenau High School is the only school with a threatened future in the Northwest portion of Jones’ district, the western end of his district is facing several mergers and closures. While he recognized the staggering budget deficits faced by the school district, Jones released a statement last week asking the SRC to consider a one-year moratorium on the decision-making process to address the larger impacts of the overhaul.

Asked about the response from school officials to his moratorium proposal, Jones indicated that school district officials were less than pleased, but tempered this with a long-term view of the situation.

“Dr. Hite will come and go,” said Jones of the PSD’s superintendent, “but I’ll be stuck with the young kids that they produce because of that.”

While the sustainability of city schooling is being examined, Jones said he is also turning his attention to school safety, particularly in light of the Newtown, CT. elementary school shooting and the recent abduction of a young girl from a school in West Philadelphia.

While mum about specific details, Jones said that he is looking at ways to standardize safety procedures at city schools.

Adjusting to a revamped Bike Race 

With the recent announcement that a bike race, now known as the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic, will return to Northwest Philadelphia streets, Jones and his staff are already beginning to turn their attention to the excess with which the race has been synonymous.

“It’s great for the city,” he said of the race, “but if you’re the person sitting at the top of the Manayunk Wall trying to figure out whether you’re going to evacuate [your home], it’s not so great.”

Jones has been part of discussion from the outset, attending numerous meetings with various local officials finding possible ways to salvage a signature event for Philadelphia.

With the 2013 bike race poised to take place in the Northwest and its surrounding neighborhoods, Jones said that 2013 will serve as a good “test year,” both for the race itself and for the sponsors, “to see if they can be good corporate citizens with the community.”

Beyond this, Fourth District residents can expect many of the same efforts seen at last year’s event aimed at curbing misbehavior along the race’s route.

Tackling crime  

Jones, under the auspices of his position as chair of City Council’s public safety committee, hosted a “crime summit” in December at Saint Joseph’s University that sought to examine crime from a variety of standpoints, with the intent to shape both future policy and forthcoming city budget decisions.

At present, the results of the summit are being summarized by SJU to develop into a cohesive strategy for action. In addition, sociological aspects are being considered to address the root causes of crime.

The results will be shared with the members of the public safety committee, whose members will be asked to commit to an agenda, or as Jones phrased it, “to put our money where our mouth is.”

While attempting to address crime at a macro-level, Jones said he is also developing relationships within the Philadelphia Police Department, even going on a ride-along with one of the newly installed commanding officers in the PPD’s Northwest Division.

Jones said that GunStat – a recent program that coordinates the efforts of the PPD and the District Attorney’s office to target violent offenders – offers the city a unique opportunity to combat crime.

“It’s the best thing since Elliot Ness,” he said.

Seeking development opportunities that are compatible with the community 

For 2013, Jones said that he will be prioritizing development in the Fourth District.

“Putting people back to work will be the best panacea to solve problems throughout,” he said.

While pleased with large scale projects like the Bakers Center site, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013, Jones said he will continue to look for additional opportunities, but not at the expense of quality.

“We hold developers to a high standard,” he noted. “It’s not just what you can get away with; it’s what’s compatible with the constituency around your development.”

“Residentially and economically, people have discovered my district,” he concluded. “I want to responsibly help them along their way.”

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