Philly Keeps Growing, But Our Politics Still Thinks We're in Decline

No Philly politicians seem to care this is happening

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The new American Community Survey numbers for 2013 are out, revealing that Philadelphia's population has continued to grow for the third year straight since the 2010 Census. Between 2010 and 2013, we gained an additional 27,000 people - more than during the previous 10 years, and more than the suburbs.

But as with the State of Center City report, the fundamentals look good but our politics still lag far behind the reality on the ground. 

When the city was shrinking in population, city politicians were consumed with how to bribe companies to locate their headquarters here, or how to make suburban people like us and come and visit the city, using subsidized Big Culture institutions, hotels, and underpriced, oversupplied parking. But now, even though the city has been growing, the politics haven't really changed.

We're still subsidizing hotels, oversupplying parking, and spending far too much time worrying about whether suburban people will come spend their money here, rather than focusing on providing the fundamental amenities our citizens want - good schools, safe neighborhoods, clean streets, low-cost transportation choices, and nice public spaces. Why do we keep wasting money on corporate tax breaks and short-sighted get rich quick schemes instead of focusing on the fundamentals?

Last year, in response to a truly horrid proposal by economist Joel Naroff to clear-cut North Philadelphia neighborhoods and turn the land over to suburban industrial park developers, Duncan Black put his finger on the problem:

[Philadelphia’s] dirty little secret is that its leaders need to start thinking a bit harder about the “problem” of this new phenomenon of population growth instead of being trapped in decline thinking. At least for the moment, the era of decline is over. That could change, of course, but it’s time to start thinking about how to deal with a growing population, something the city hasn’t had to do in a long time.

A good example is our debate over vacant land policy. Philadelphia city officials like to talk about the vacant land problem as if all the city's land holdings are undevelopable parcels in North Philly. But the reality is that many of the neighborhoods they think people don't want to develop are actually starting to turn the corner, and besides, the city owns plenty of vacant parcels (including 2971 city-owned surface parking spacesin growing areas where people do want to develop housing. And yet, those properties still aren’t being sold due to a combination of bureaucratic incoordination and misguided anti-gentrification strategies.

Our politicians have gone from wishing that upper middle class people would want to come here, and doing all kinds of silly things to attract them, to the opposite policy - hasty ad hoc interventions that try to stop market rate housing from being built in areas people used to wish would see more investment. Even small increases in market-enlarging, tax-base growing population density in the neighborhoods that are seeing high demand for housing are resisted, and frequently rejected, over fears of tighter curb parking.

Worst of all, the housing development politics haven't caught up with the overall decline in driving that the nation, and Philadelphia, have been experiencing for several years now.

While the new zoning code reduced minimum parking requirements, and even eliminated them in the case of single-family homes, there are still on-site parking requirements for multi-family housing - that is, the one kind of housing that car-free Millenials are most likely to want.

Oftentimes you'll hear residents complain about the alleged high cost of new housing (quite low compared to our peer metros) and the lack of on-site structured parking (usually around $10-20K a space) in the same breath. People will suggest getting rid of granite countertops to bring the prices down, but never the expensive underground parking garage.

The fact is that Philadelphia doesn't really have a gentrification problem. Our housing costs are low as a percentage of income. The issue is that we have a high poverty rate (an income problem), and high transportation costs. Very few of the city's neighborhoods have transportation costs below 15% of Area Median Income - the typical standard for transportation affordability - and the reason is that we're still too car-dependent. Cars are really expensive.

There's no easy answer for changing the declinist political attitudes, but the vision Philadelphia needs to embrace is clear. Like Vancouver, we should aim to grow the population while shrinking the number of cars. There'll always be a premium on conveniently-located urban housing in high-amenity neighborhoods that are safe and have good schools. But the raw materials to build apartments are pretty darn cheap, and the housing itself can stay inexpensive if we don't tack on all kinds of unnecessary extra costs like an overly nettlesome and uncertain process, height and lot size restrictions, and most importantly, attached parking.

Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 May 2014 @ 16.42
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.