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A District in Dissent

Improvement plans have divided residents and property owners pushing the bill. It’s a familiar sight: A group of developers and a pastor sit in a room on North Sydenham Street, talking about their investment in the community seated just off Main Campus. Perhaps a familiar setting, but it’s not familiar in terms of context. Instead… Read more »

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TIMOTHY VALSHTEIN TTN Plans to improve the North Central Philadelphia area near Main Campus have angered many long-time residents, who said they want more representatation in the proposed neighborhood improvement district. The district will be signed into law in coming months, unless affected property owners vote the bill down.

Improvement plans have divided residents and property owners pushing the bill.

It’s a familiar sight: A group of developers and a pastor sit in a room on North Sydenham Street, talking about their investment in the community seated just off Main Campus.

Perhaps a familiar setting, but it’s not familiar in terms of context. Instead of talking about student rates or building more apartments, the group’s discussion of late, in this TempleTown Realty office, has been about a different issue: an extra tax. And the same people pushing the extra fee are among the ones who would be paying it.

This site, along with others throughout the community, is where the idea behind the North Central Neighborhood Improvement District was molded.

“A lot of hours have been spent in this room and other rooms in this neighborhood trying to figure this thing out,” said Herb Reid, a landlord in the area and member or the informal steering committee pushing the bill.

Though the process of putting the bill together may have been exhausting in and of itself, the hard labor is yet to come. The NCNID is supported by City Council President Darrell Clarke, who introduced the bill to council, and Temple, which is expected to make a significant contribution to the district. But the reaction from the community has been all but supportive.

FRAMEWORK

A NID is a nonprofit set up by the city in a specific zone and funded through outside resources in order to improve the appearance, economy and security of the neighborhood.

Throughout Philadelphia, NIDs and business improvement districts have been created as a way to, “improve business profitability and property values,” according to the Drexel Law Review.

These districts range in size and stature from zones with more than 4,000 properties, as seen in the Center City District, to blocks of land that feature fewer than 100 properties as seen in the Port Richmond Industrial Development Enterprise.

While each district is different, Richardson Dilworth, director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy said he’s been impressed by the impact of NIDs on the community.

“In my experience from dealing with [NIDs], I have been really impressed at what they’ve brought the neighborhoods,” Dilworth said. “You’ll never be able to figure out what exactly they bring to a neighborhood in terms of quantitative value added.”

The idea for NCNID was born out of meetings in November 2010 among longtime residents, landlords and Clarke, who represents the area, which is included in the fifth district. The meetings were held to address issues between students, landlords and residents in the area, Reid, a member of the Temple Area Property Association, said.

“Sixteen months ago, we sat in City Hall. [Clarke] had brought together a concerned group of landlords, the university [representatives], a concerned group of residents, among others,” Reid said. “What we discussed that night was longstanding issues and some new issues that plague the community.”

Reid added: “What [Clarke] said was, ‘I think the answer to this is a neighborhood improvement district,’ and basically he told us to get it done.”

NUTS AND BOLTS

Bill number 120020, as it sits in council, lays out a plan in which the NCNID would answer to the North Central Management Corporation, a nonprofit created for the district that would act as the Neighborhood Improvement District Management Association.

The affected area would roughly stretch from York Street to Girard Avenue and from 19th Street to Broad Street, excluding properties on Broad Street. The district also includes the area ranging east from Watts Street to the SEPTA Regional Rail tracks and south from York Street to Susquehanna Avenue. Affected properties would also include Diamond Green, Kardon-Atlantic Terminal Building, University Village and the Wanamaker School development.

When asked why the area is staggered, Reid said that it aims to cover areas where students are most likely living off Main Campus.

“[Temple] students are part of the overall community,” Reid said. “They needed to be part of this because they have so many students and so many of them are part of the community. They party on the west side, they party throughout the east side and everyone needed to be included.”

Peter Crawford, a developer and member of TAPA, added that the map is not continuous because Temple is in the middle of the land and the Yorktown neighborhood does not allow for most student leasing.

“The reason it’s not contiguous is both because the university is right there and because the neighborhood of Yorktown, which is a single-family neighborhood, does not permit student housing,” Crawford, a member of the informal steering committee, said. “They are a little cut off and they’re little islands of student housing, but they should still be part of the broader effort.”

Preliminary plans suggest the district’s first year budget would be $450,000, which would be paid for through a yet to be announced donation from Temple, donations from local nonprofits and a fee on property owners equaling about 7 percent of their current real estate tax. The fee would not be imposed on owner-occupants in the area.

Of the $450,000 budget, more than half would be dedicated to appearance of the neighborhood in the way of cleaning and streetscape enhancements. Another $80,000 would be reserved for administrative and marketing fees to pay for an executive director to oversee the NID and additional costs associated with it, Nick Pizzola, vice president of TAPA, said.

Initial plans call for an unpaid board of directors that consists of two representatives from Temple, four landlords, a representative from the city and two members of the community. During a Feb. 22 meeting concerning the NCNID, Reid said the board would contain a total of six landlords and Temple representatives because they are the ones who are footing the bill for the district.

“Those are the folks paying into it, they’re going to want to be represented,” Reid said. “There’s no way around that. The university is going to want to have some representation, they’re going to be writing a six-figure check to help make this thing work.”

Pastor Lewis Nash, a member of the informal steering committee, added that while this district would add services, the city can’t take any existing services away.

“Legally, the city can’t take any services away, this would add services to the community,” Nash said.

The bill was re-introduced to City Council on Jan. 26, and will face two public hearings, the first today, March 13, before a 45-day period in which the bill can be voted down by a negative vote of 51 percent of the affected property owners.

COMMUNITY WATCH

To date, there has only been one NID that has been shot down by the community it would be affecting. The Callowhill Reading Viaduct Neighborhood Improvement District was voted down by property owners because, Dilworth said, it fell victim to a few fatal flaws.

“At that time there was a lot of public sentiment against taxation,” Dilworth said. “They had some specific community struggles in terms of communicating what they were trying to do. It was also, unlike the other ones, going to be mostly financed through individual property owners.”

Although, the NCNID has been hailed by the steering committee and the council president, residents throughout the affected area have been wary about the improvement district and some vow to make sure the NCNID is the second NID to be rejected.

Concerns have varied from the exclusion of residents in the decision-making process to the encroachment of Main Campus on the surrounding community.

“My concern as a resident of 54 years is that we’re not being included in the plans or anything that’s happening in North Philadelphia and I’m concerned that we’ll be taxed out of our community,” said Denise Ripley, a resident and block captain on the 1500 block of North Uber Street.

Ripley, who said she is outside of the affected area, said she fears that their neighborhood is being divided by the legislation.

Vivian VanStory, a resident of the 1500 block of West Thompson Street, echoed the same sentiments.

“They did not include the community [in the process],” VanStory said. “How can they determine our needs based on what they assess themselves when they have been part of the problem? Because we weren’t a part of the decision making process, they can’t determine the needs for us.”

At a March 6 community meeting in Ritter Hall concerning the NCNID, Tarik Nasir, a local landlord and member of TAPA, also expressed outrage at the bill.

“When I read the text of the [bill], I’ve never been more incensed in my life, it was the worst thing I’ve ever read,” Nasir said. “I do not support this plan and many members of TAPA believe as I do that its name has been hijacked. All single-family [dwelling] owners are left out of the decision-making process on issues that would directly affect them and their families.”

VanStory said she’s been passing out petitions and literature against the bill, hoping to get 51 percent of the affected property owners to reject the bill.

“[Passing out] petitions is one of the things that we have to go against it to make sure we get 51 percent [against it],” VanStory said. “Clarke should realize that the people don’t want it.”

MOVING FORWARD

After an initial meeting between the steering committee and residents on Feb. 22, Pizzola    admitted that while he expected some backlash, he did not expect the level of outrage exhibited at the meeting toward the bill.

“I didn’t expect it to be as rough as it was,” Pizzola said.

During the March 6 meeting leading up to the first hearing at City Hall, both sides took positives from a meeting that was filled with impassioned speeches and raw emotion.

“I think we got a significant amount of the misconceptions about this bill cleared up,” Clarke said. “People are passionate about their neighborhood and most of the people in here are long-term residents. I understand that when something is proposed for their neighborhood, and particularly when they think that they haven’t been a part of the process from day one, they naturally have some concern.”

VanStory also said that she hopes the community has sent a message to the city through its interactions with the steering committee and the council president.

“They realize that the community is not sleeping here, we’re aware of what’s going on, but we don’t want their plan,” VanStory said.

Reid added after the last meeting that some of the content of the bill is going to have to be changed after hearing the community’s concerns.

“There’s definitely some changes that need to come into the bill,” Reid said. “We tried to add a bit of clarity. There’s some representation from the neighborhood that needs to change.”

While a majority of the time at outreach meetings has been spent combating fears from the community, Crawford said he looks forward to working with the residents in figuring out how to make the NCNID work.

“My message to the community is this: Let’s work together, let’s make something positive,” Crawford said. “We’ve got the resources as landlords, the residents have the vision. Instead of fighting each other, let’s work together to make this place better.”

Sean Carlin can be reached at sean.carlin@temple.edu.

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