A New Agenda to Rescue the Cities

April 26, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- What mayor would have the moxie to dream up, virtually on his own, a far-reaching new national urban policy to save America's faltering big cities? And then, without asking a single other mayor for help, personally solicit active support of the president and vice president?

Philadelphia's Edward Rendell says the federal government could ''tilt the playing field'' to help struggling older cities regain their economic sea legs without placing big demands on the strapped federal Treasury.

His ''New Urban Agenda'' is no cure-all for troubled older cities, Philadelphia included. But taken to heart by the president and Congress, it would represent a long-missing commitment to, and hope for, America's besieged center cities.

The centerpiece of Mayor Rendell's program would be a federal commitment to stop and even reverse the steady flow of federal jobs in recent years from cities to suburbs and rural areas. ''So long as the federal government continues to spend billions of dollars on welfare, education, job training and other social programs for cities,'' he argues, ''it is foolish to allow federal agencies to ignore the consequences of abandoning cities.''

Mayor Rendell would have the feds create a ''powerful presumption'' in favor of distressed cities when the location of federal jobs -- new or old -- is up for grabs. Agencies would have to file ''urban impact statements,'' show ''compelling reasons'' for rejecting urban locations, and even then get the president's specific approval to locate jobs outside distressed cities.

Next up on Mr. Rendell's list is eliminating unfunded mandates -- for example the federal government's effort, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to force curb cuts and ramps at all city intersections by 1995. The job would cost Philadelphia $140 million, three times its yearly street resurfacing budget. So far the mayor has flatly refused to spend the money.

Mr. Rendell would give added potency to the new federal empowerment and enterprise zones, to be designated in September. He asks Washington to put premier new facilities -- such as a string of manufacturing technology research centers -- in the zones. He'd require that 15 percent of federal procurement be from businesses that operate in the zones. Such a requirement might inflate the government's costs in the short run, but he argues that it would hold them in check in the long run because of competition among the zones.

The federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, a huge boon to older cities' economies until Congress revoked it in 1986, would be restored, as would commercial revenue bonds to permit economic development projects in the cities. A raft of smaller tax changes would benefit the cities, plus a revision of federal Superfund law to encourage speedier recycling of polluted urban lands.

If American regions are to compete well in the new world economy, Mayor Rendell notes, localities need to cooperate better and undergird their center cities. So he'd have Washington add a bonus in job training, transit or arts funds for regions that adopt dedicated region-wide taxes that relieve center cities of extraordinary burdens.

Is there any chance that official Washington -- which last year rejected the most modest of stimulus packages for America's cities -- will listen to the Rendell formula?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. First, because of the rare credibility Ed Rendell brings to the debate. And second because, underneath it all, he is a savvy politico.

Mayor Rendell's credibility is based on his rescue of Philadelphia from the brink of bankruptcy -- an act he pulled off not by raising taxes, but by instituting dozens of productivity reforms, contracting out services, cutting $200 million out of his first-year budget, and winning major concessions from once invincible unions.

If there's a way to ''reinvent'' urban governance, Mr. Rendell is up on it. Indeed, he traveled America for four years, looking for government reinvention ideas, before winning the mayoralty in 1991.

Early on, he distanced himself from many of his big-city colleagues by insisting that mayors had to stop ''whining'' for a return of the generous federal aid of the '60s and '70s.

When he finally concluded there was no way that even the toughest fiscal reforms and most brilliant reinvention formulas, on their own, could rescue old cities like Philadelphia, no one could doubt his sincerity.

Two months ago Mayor Rendell requested a joint meeting of both President Clinton and Vice President Gore. He got it, made his pitch for the ''New Urban Agenda'' in a 40-minute staccato tour de force, and walked away with Clintonian advice: If you want to make a real national splash, come to Washington to make your announcement.

Now that Mr. Rendell has done that, the question is whether official Washington will finally respond, or in customary fashion, just snooze off.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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