Philadelphia tackles scourge of vacancy

Renewal: The city plans to demolish 14,000 vacant buildings and build housing that will attract new residents.

April 25, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Bulldozers may soon come to be as omnipresent here as cheesesteaks.

Seeking to reverse a 50-year population decline, this city is embarking on a program to tear down 14,000 abandoned buildings over the next five years, clearing land for the development of housing that would attract new residents.

Officials describe the $295 million program, dubbed the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and funded by city bonds, as a lifeline for long-neglected communities - and, by extension, for the city itself.

"We absolutely, unequivocally need to shore up our communities. We can't allow vacant properties to continue unabated," Mayor John F. Street said in an interview.

"You can only grow and develop so much on the strength of your core," the first-term mayor added. "At some point, you have to act to stem the exodus of residents."

The anti-blight plan would rid the city of about half its abandoned properties. It includes $160 million for demolition of commercial, industrial and residential buildings; $80 million to preserve 4,500 units in neighborhoods showing signs of decline; and $50 million to assemble tracts of land for development.

In January, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley announced his own plan to seize control of up to 5,000 of the city's 14,000 abandoned properties in the next two years. But O'Malley has not said how he would pay for the plan, which would cost tens of millions of dollars for demolition and acquisition.

Last month, O'Malley borrowed an early element of Philadelphia's initiative, announcing a program to remove abandoned cars from city streets.

Like Baltimore, where the Inner Harbor and parts of downtown have been revitalized, Philadelphia has managed to reinvigorate what is known as its Center City, with projects such as the $265 million Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which opened late last year.

And as in Baltimore, the appeal of many of Philadelphia's most storied neighborhoods, such as Rittenhouse Square and Chestnut Hill, has remained undiminished, while other communities, such as the area around the University of Pennsylvania, have begun to be renewed with restored houses and new shops and businesses.

But both cities have been beset by the elimination of well-paying factory jobs and the flight of tens of thousands of residents to the suburbs - factors that in many neighborhoods created a devastating spiral of abandonment, decay and more abandonment.

Since 1950, Philadelphia has lost more than half a million residents, including more than 68,000 in the past decade. Still the country's fifth-largest city with 1.5 million people, Philadelphia staved off financial ruin in the 1990s.

But it has more than 30,000 vacant lots and nearly that many vacant properties. Based on data that range from housing sales to vacancy rates, officials classify roughly half the city as distressed or in need of reclamation, with most of the blight concentrated in large swaths of North and West Philadelphia.

In recent years, the city has demolished about three properties a day - but has still not managed to keep pace with emptying structures.

On one desolate West Philly block, near where Street signed legislation last month authorizing the city to issue bonds for his initiative, the two-story brick rowhouses are most notable for their collapsing balconies, disintegrating concrete stoops and falling roofs. Only a handful still have anyone living in them; on a recent weekday, the only person on the sidewalks was a disoriented, glassy-eyed woman.

"When I was growing up, this whole block was filled with people," said 21-year-old Enrique Ellison, her words coming from behind a heavy metal grate on the door to the rowhouse she shares with her mother and an uncle. "Slowly but surely, the block deteriorated."

Among the trials her family has endured is a fire in the vacant house next door, the charred remains of which are still visible.

"You don't have neighbors looking out for neighbors - you have drifters," she said. "Anything that'll bring people back into the neighborhood, I think is for the best."

Many in the city share Ellison's sense of urgency. But while most everyone agrees something must be done to clear the city's backlog of vacant properties, it's not hard to find doubters about the anti-blight plan.

In fact, the plan was held up for nearly a year as Street and the City Council wrangled over how much oversight the legislative body would have. During that time, Street used city operating funds to launch other, less expensive elements of his plan, including a major cleanup of vacant lots and the towing of thousands of abandoned cars.

Mark Alan Hughes, a senior fellow in the University of Pennsylvania's Fox Leadership Program and an op-ed columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, calls neighborhood transformation "the right priority." But he says the program as outlined tries to do too many things for too many neighborhoods.

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