Philly's New Street Smarts

PHILADELPHIA is banking on the kindness of developers and contractors as a way to slow, if not reverse, the stampede of people – on average 84 each day – who move out of the City of Brotherly Love.

The nation's fifth-biggest city has more abandoned lots and abandoned buildings per capita than any city in the country. While its center is hot with development, many neighborhoods remain blighted.

It's another example of how a downtown engine can't drive a whole city car without a comprehensive plan.

Last month, the city began an ambitious five-year effort to clear urban blight from its "streetscape." The plan calls for demolishing 14,000 abandoned homes, clearing 31,000 vacant lots, and renovating some 2,500 buildings. It's premise: Create the conditions for private investment with public money. It also includes clearing some red tape. Years ago, a Brookings Institution study proved that complicated tax structures and overly bureaucratic processes for acquiring land helped send developers away from Philly.

The new initiative was nurtured by city hall, and by residents in neighborhoods with names like Nicetown and Strawberry Mansion who said "enough is enough" when it came to ramshackle homes, abandoned cars, and overgrown, trashed vacant lots. But now, with a nearly $300 million bond issue (not yet passed) to finance it, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative rests on a hope that if they tear it down, developers will come.

It also hinges on new residents flocking to private housing developments. Quality-of-life issues – such as creating better schools, building a more competitive tax structure, and addressing public-safety issues – still need to be factored into the plan as it unfolds.

Old industrial cities need more than new stadiums, arts complexes, or yuppie condos. New census figures show that for every three households that move into a city, five move out. For cities to sustain longer-term recovery and reverse that decline, they'll have to develop innovative, longer-range planning, such as Philly's, and then stick to those plans.

Philadelphia may have some unique problems, but its idea of trying a clean sweep that makes way for sensible real estate investment and development can provide a useful lesson for other cities.

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