Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Slums of Center City

If you've lived in Philadelphia for a while, you might not see them. But look up. Pretend you've never been here before. Or visit a city like Savannah, soak up its manicured blocks, its considerable lack of surface parking, then return to Philadelphia and stroll through neighborhoods like Old City and Midtown Village. 

You'll see it, the slums of Center City. Along East Chestnut Street and throughout Old City, it's everywhere. Seemingly abandoned buildings in the heart of the city. Often, at best, a building is only as good as its ground floor. An Old City gallery capped with boarded up or broken windows, sometimes gaping maws open to the elements.

How has this happened? As the outer rung blossoms from Passyunk Square to Northern Liberties to University City, Philadelphia's heart - Center City - is perplexingly clotted. 

It's hard to complain. We're not Detroit. But we need to stop comparing ourselves to the worst. That's what got us here. 

In South Philadelphia and Fishtown, neighborhoods are so congested that cars take to the median to find parking and save spots with lawn chairs. But in Center City, where land usage begs for the most stringent of requirements, parking lots surround garages, across the street from even more. 

A surface lot faces City Hall, the geographic center of our city. New Philadelphians look at our city's smile and wonder why its missing so many teeth. But those at the source of the problem are looking at a city in disdain. Dinosaurs, whether they're in bed with City Hall or not, whether they're in City Hall or not, see another Philadelphia. One that is Detroit.

They acquired now-prime property when the city was on death's door. And now fifty plus years into their investment, these properties are monthly checks from a city they forgot about while they play shuffleboard in Palm Beach.

Unfortunately the slumlords and the surface parking lot owners enable each other, and City Hall grants them a pass. Slowly these properties are being passed down to their children, children inheriting the burden of a city they don't know is trying to thrive. From California to Texas to Boston, Center City is owned by the unfamiliar.

With some of the lowest parking taxes in the nation, our density begs for us to have the highest. But not just parking tax, land usage tax. Have you ever strolled down East Chestnut and looked up at the dramatic bay windows, empty and cracked, and thought, "If no one want to live there, I will!"

How can the city allow this? Because these owners took a chance on Philadelphia when no one else would? That would be like saying I took a chance on Detroit if I snatched up a few of their $5000 houses and let them rot for the next fifty years. 

What's worse, developers that actually develop routine avoid these properties, likely because they know they're owned by cranky old-timers hoarding land to pass down to their kids. Perhaps as some of these buildings manage to outlive their owners, their children will take an ounce of pride in their part of a new Philadelphia. Unfortunately, if the city doesn't take strides to discourage land hoarding and slumlording throughout the city, particularly at the foundation of its skyscrapers, inherited land will inherit its blighted mentality. 

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