Terry Gillen calls 2015 election a choice between old and new Philadelphia

Terry Gillen on the issues

On school funding: “My vision of Philadelphia is that it’s a city where all of the schools are high-performing – not just some schools, not just in some neighborhoods. That’s going to take a lot of work. But when I’m Mayor, I’m going to go to places like Upper Darby where I grew up – I went to Upper Darby High School which is a struggling school now – and go to the other municipalities in Pennsylvania and I’m going to work to get a new fair funding formula, because the state needs to meet its Constitutional obligation to our school children.

“It can’t just be some schools – it has to be all of the schools – because even the children in the poor neighborhoods need to have somebody speaking for them. Because if we don’t fund their schools now, we will see them five or ten years from now in the criminal justice system, so we might as well help them now. You can pay now, or you can pay later, so we might as well pay now, so that’s what I’m committed to for the public schools.”

On local control of schools: “This is the strongest [School Reform Commission] that we’ve had in a decade, but I do think we have to have a conversation about whether the state is fulfilling its obligation. And if the state wants to control the school system then they’ve got to put the funding in. If they’re not going to put the funding in, then yeah I think we should get local control because there’s no reason to have state control.”

On elected vs. appointed school boards: “I don’t think we should elect a school board, I think it should be appointed. I think that’s right – a Mayoral appointed school board. Like I said, I think the current school board is pretty good, so it wouldn’t be radically different than the one we have now. I think they are really committed to making the classroom experience better for schoolchildren. I don’t think they’re into building their own power bases, I don’t think they have secret agendas, I think they really are committed to making schools better. And that seems really basic, but it hasn’t always been the case.”

On jobs: “My vision is also that we can create good paying jobs in Philadelphia. Even though our job creation has been flat for many years, I think now is the time to create jobs. We can compete with places like New York and Boston for family-sustaining jobs because we know that the city grows when Philadelphians have jobs.”

On Navy Yard transit connectivity: “We set up the Navy Yard to compete with suburban business parks. In the 1990’s, businesses were leaving the city and opening up in the suburbs. And they said they needed one-story buildings, they didn’t want high-rises, and we needed to have a place to keep them in Philadelphia and it’s been a success from that perspective.

“We always knew that there needed to be good public transit access and I still that we can take a look at what that access would look like. We should look at Bus Rapid Transit – I think a BRT system might work.”

On Senator Bob Casey’s call to extend the Broad Street line“It would be great to extend the [Broad Street] line, but I think in this world, where the federal government doesn’t have money for even basic roads, Senator Casey appropriately understands that would be a heavy lift. Nothing’s happened to make it happen. New York City is the only city in the country extending a subway line, and they’re doing it with private money.”

On TRID and local value capture financing for transit expansion: “I think we could look at TRID. I’d worry about anything that diverts money away from the public schools right now, and because of the [10-year property tax] abatement for new construction I think it becomes hard to do in Philadelphia.”

On keeping the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities: “I certainly think that having the transportation functions organized out of the Mayor’s office makes total sense, so yes, I don’t know why we’d change that. Mayor Rendell had a transportation coordinator who didn’t have quite as much power, but I think it absolutely makes sense. Every city now has a transportation office of some sort.”

The first candidate for the 2015 Mayoral race officially declared her intention to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination this weekend, casting the race as a contest between Old Philadelphia and New Philadelphia.

Standing on the front stoop of a home on the St. Albans Street garden block in Graduate Hospital on a humid Saturday morning, former Redevelopment Authority Director and veteran political insider Terry Gillen previewed her stump speech for a gathering of about 40 supporters and neighbors, touting her “vision and persistence” over 30 years of public service as a harbinger of success in the city’s top executive office.

Among the achievements that required Terry Gillen’s vision and persistence: creating Julian Abele Park (“the first city park created in 20 years”); warding off two attempts by the Philadelphia School District to close Edwin M. Stanton school; winning federal affordable housing grant competitions as Redevelopment Authority director, and crafting the city’s vision for the Navy Yard in the 1990s as deputy commerce director.

“There were smart people who said we shouldn’t even take the Navy Yard – we should let the Navy keep it,” she said. “But we had vision, and we had persistence, and this year, PIDC announced we’ve created over 11,000 jobs down at the Navy Yard as a result of the work many of us did.”

Gillen also previewed a campaign narrative that seems likely to invite some controversy: Old Philadelphia vs. New Philadelphia.

“More than 50,000 people have moved in to Philadelphia in the last eight years,” she said, “and they are not wedded to the old vision of Philadelphia as a place where you have to settle for things the way they were, but where we can think about things in a different way.”

Old vs. New Philadelphia has the potential to be a mathematically perilous choice of theme, given the propensity of Philadelphia’s seniors to vote at higher rates than Millennials, but Gillen’s campaign seems to want to thread this needle by defining New Philadelphia narrowly as a political approach – impatience with the reflexive can’t-do attitude still lingering in some corners of city government; frustration with arbitrary traditionalism in both policymaking and electoral politics – rather than any specific demographic groups.

But it still struck a sour note with a couple of attendees, who interpreted it as a signal that a Gillen administration would cater to newer (whiter, wealthier) residents’ interests over those of long-time residents.

“Long-time black residents are being ignored,” said Jerome Whack, an attendee who opposes Gillen.

“She’s consistently ignored the African American community down here in favor of trying to bring in white upper-middle class rich people who pay no property taxes and are given all kinds of breaks,” continued Mr. Whack, who the voter file says is registered to vote near Cedar Park in West Philly.

Gillen disagreed with that interpretation.

“It means a new way of looking at politics, and saying that we don’t have to play by the same old rules and we can elect different kinds of people for the Mayor’s job and for all kinds of jobs,” she explained.

Gillen’s role in a recent conflict over a development project in Graduate Hospital, just a few blocks away from the campaign kick-off site, now seems like a bit of an awkward conduit for New Philadelphia’s political hopes.

As reported by City Paper’s Ryan Briggs, the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron, and myself, developer Jason Nusbaum’s request for a zoning variance to build a five-story mixed-use, zero-parking development at 2300 South Street – across from what would become the Gray’s Ferry Triangle pedestrian plaza – has turned into something of a symbolic wedge dividing younger and older neighborhood activists.

Younger activists on the South of South Neighbors Association and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office supported the project variance enthusiastically, while some older committee people opposed it over curb parking and density concerns. The episode inspired a number of the younger activists to run for Ward Executive Committee (“committeeperson”) seats in an unsuccessful bid to unseat 30th ward leader Marcia Wilkof.

Ryan Briggs reported that Gillen and other opponents retained lawyer Joseph Beller to fight the project, which has since been denied by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

When I asked Gillen how she reconciles her campaign’s claim to represent New Philadelphia with her opposition to a project encapsulating many of the new committee people’s visions of a lower-car mixed-use Graduate Hospital, she answered thusly:

“Well, you know I have been working for lower-car green projects my whole career. One of the things I’m most proud of is getting the bike lanes on the South St bridge. I worked for 15 years on that – getting the South Street bridge changed from a five-lane highway when nobody thought we could do that, and get pedestrian and bike lanes on that.

“In that case we had to make compromises too – I don’t think the South St bridge is exactly what I wanted, but we had to compromise, and I think on zoning issues we always have to compromise. And there’s always a balance you have to strike between the people who have been here a long time and the people who haven’t, and that’s really what I’m talking about. I think that’s what happened here.

“What I think is that the developer should get started and build his building. He has zoning approval. “I wish he would start building instead of letting the lot sit vacant.”

Gillen said she has reached out to all of the new 30th ward committee people, and hopes to receive their support in the Democratic primary.

For now, most seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

Alex Feldman, the Vice President of U3 Advisors and one of a handful of newly-elected 30th ward committeepeople in attendance at Saturday’s kick-off, says he’s staying neutral for now. But land use, zoning, and economic development politics will be a key voting issue for him.

“I want to see better development in Philadelphia and I want to see us working toward the right kind of urban planning and real estate development in our neighborhoods,” he said.

“2300 South is an example of a project that I think could’ve done wonders for that intersection, and I’d like to see more conversation about what we can do to make those kinds of projects more feasible.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.