Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Perfect Storm

A turf war is brewing in the neighborhood north of the Vine Street Expressway between Philadelphia's Chinatown community and Callowhill's loft-living yuppies. The s***showdown has spawned so many rumors and so much hostility from both sides, it's impossible to determine what exactly was proposed and where we landed. The only thing that seems to be clear is that it has nothing to do with money and everything to do with marking territory.

The Philadelphia Inquirer lauded Maria and John Yuen for going up against the Callowhill neighborhood and successfully blocking a proposed Neighborhood Improvement District. The NID would have added a 7% tax to the residents in the Callowhill neighborhood in exchange for maintenance services.

Or was it for the maintenance of the proposed but uncertain Reading Viaduct Park? Or did it exempt the park? Both sides are spewing so much propaganda, it wouldn't be clear to anyone signing a petition.

The problem at the center of the entire debate seems to be the park which was used to sell the NID to Callowhill residents, and used to oppose it to Chinatown residents. It's likely the NID would have passed if the park had never been proposed in the first place. Whether for or against to the park, neither side seems willing to admit that it's highly unlikely we'll see the viaduct redeveloped in any way anytime soon.

What is clear is that the Inquirer's headline is misleading if not downright wrong. Callowhill NID Foes Went Up Against Powerful Forces and Won. Obviously the powerful forces at play were those opposed to the NID if they managed to gather enough signatures to kill it.

In NIMBYism on top of NIMBYism, Maria Yuen even created NOVA, the North of Vine Association, to represent the same neighborhood that the Callowhill Neighborhood Association already represents instead of joining the CNA to work with them.

Some opposed to the NID have even claimed the area north of Vine to be historically part of Chinatown that was cut off when the Vine Street Expressway was built. In fact, Vine Street had divided the two neighborhoods prior to the expressway's construction. Historically the neighborhood north of Vine was known as the Tenderloin. Before the expressway divided the two neighborhoods, Chinatown was exponentially smaller. Opposition seems to be attempting to rewrite history to make its case. Chinatown's growth is great, but the direction in which it would have grown is irrelevant to history.

Unfortunately, the reluctance of both sides to compromise will ultimately harm this area. I don't think the NID is the way to clean up Callowhill. We already pay enough taxes, and there's no reason to add another layer on top of federal, state, and city taxes. The money is there to clean up all of our neighborhoods, we just mismanage it. Many in favor of the NID seem to be confusing their property value with how much it costs for it to exist. A NID may raise the resale price of their home, but unless the NID makes some dramatic improvements, the increase will be to cover the new tax, not because their property is more valuable.

Even if we want to create an Improvement District, other neighborhoods have Business Improvement Districts which tax businesses, not residents. Callowhill lacks the business for this to make any realistic impact.

I don't agree with the way this NID was defeated. Was it Democratic? Yes. Did both side abuse the hype over a pipe dream to make their case? Absolutely.

Philadelphia doesn't have to be expensive to be clean. We all want our property value to go up, but we want it to go up because it's more valuable, not more expensive. Unfortunately the voice in Callowhill seems to confuse the two. At the same time, the voice on behalf of Chinatown is willing to engage in the Democratic process, but unwilling to engage in our Capitalistic process, and the conflict at Vine Street seems to be brewing the Perfect Storm of American Ideology.

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