The Civic Hack You’ll Never Believe Will Change Philly Politics: Doing The Work

The most frustrating thing about Philly politics is that so many people who mean well can’t imagine a different power structure than the one that exists today.

The 2019 election result we’re going to see isn’t imaginable today if you can’t imagine a different set of political institutions. So get busy helping build those institutions. The worst thing you can do is imagine that there’s some sort of quick fix short-cut that gets around the hard work of organizing within the ward system. There’s no secret. Register to vote in Democratic primaries and then bust your ass electing the people you like in every single Democratic primary. That’s it. Winning the ward politics is everything.

Bethlehem and Lancaster Win CRIZ Districts

It’s a Crizzmas miracle, y’all! (John Callahan’s joke, not mine.) Bethlehem and Lancaster have been selected to keep more of their own taxes to finance infill development. It’s a big win for Bethlehem in particular because they’re right next to Allentown, and people were worried that the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) would diminish interest in redeveloping Bethlehem’s brownfields.

I’m a big fan of the one-of-a-kind NIZ district Allentown politicians snuck into the 2009 PA Code, which has succeeded in spurring lots of urban infill development in its downtown, but I am less enthusiastic about the CRIZ that was modeled on it.

The slush fund nature of the NIZ, where a new Authority gets all the state and local taxes collected in a contiguous area except local property taxes, with few strings attached, seems to have worked strongly in Allentown’s favor. To a large extent, Allentown may have just lucked out with a developer who’s committed to good urbanism, but good ideas combined with a massive slush fund turned out to be a great combo, even as the process obsessives are having kidney stones over it.

The CRIZ is considerably weaker, but still a big win for cities. I think we should extend this deal to all the Cities of the Third Class now, before they all end up in Act 47. That’s not how state opted to do it though, and two large (over 50K) third class cities per year will be selected to keep some more state taxes instead of pissing them away into our state’s emptiest counties.

have a number of problems with Bethlehem’s list of projects (contiguousness is paramount!), and haven’t paid much attention to Lancaster’s, but good for them. I hope the new Bethlehem Council members will revisit the list and make some better choices, or at least make the Martin Tower redevelopment plan contingent on more comprehensive redevelopment of the parking lots and other land parcels around it.

Allentown turned the money firehose on the most walkable areas of town, not on white elephant projects, and that’s a key reason why it’s been successful. People worried the new buildings would stay empty, but they were wrong, and J.B. Reilly’s already leased all of his planned space to business tenants.

PHOTOS: Introducing the Easton Rail Park

The rail station in Easton apparently used to be a really neat looking place, but it’s since burned down so unfortunately there’s not an opportunity for adaptive reuse there. But last year my Mom had a cool idea to turn the abandoned railway, which passes over 611, into a rail park like New York City’s High Line, and one day this past summer I decided to go check it out.

The following is a virtual tour of the trail from the “entrance” at Washington and 4th Street (a hair west of the highway ramp next to the Wawa shopping center) to the free bridge in Phillipsburg, NJ.

My brother David is the photographer in the family, not me, so please bear with these crappy iPhone photos. My hope is merely that this blog post will inspire others to take similar trips, and eventually spark some interest from city officials and business leaders. There are several special things about this project that I will point out between the photos.

Here is the entrance to the trail. Currently much of it is overgrown with weeds, but as you can see, there are actually bricks down there. The entrance area is much wider than this picture suggests:

Some well-designed signage and other attractions, like maybe a permanent on-site concession stand or some food trucks parked to the side could make this area pop, and with some enlightened land use policies, eventually catalyze some sprawl repair around that area of Washington.

This path continues on for a little while and then you make a left onto the rail tracks. There probably is more track to the right but I didn’t venture over that way:

You continue through the foliage for a bit, and then you get a nice aerial view of downtown Easton (starting with an ugly view of the Quality Inn, the Condoms Galore dumpster, and related architectural diarrhea around the intersection of Washington and 611.)

Here’s the view down 4th Street:

Here’s what the trail looks like around 4th Street:

And here’s some more 1970′s planner diarrhea:

As you will see as we continue along the path, this is an opportunity to create a very nice park for Easton, which would likely be a regional draw, and would add a lot of land value to the area. But it should only be undertaken if the city goes into this with the view that it is an opportunity to do sprawl repair all along Washington east of the courthouse, infilling all those sidewalk-facing surface lots with mixed-use apartments and retail just like you see on Northampton Street. Yes I know that Washington is a very steep hill; no, I don’t want to hear that this makes it a bad fit for urban infill. I see people walk up Washington all the time. (Bonus fun fact: they used to close the hill off back in the day when it snowed, and my grandmother and her friends would go sledding down it.)

Some more imagery from the path as we continue toward the river:

The view of the river is so awesome, but the view of the corner of 3rd Street is not. It really makes you realize how much of this key gateway into downtown Easton is devoted to vibe-killing, budget-murdering surface parking. This is the worst place ever for a gas station. It is the worst place for all this stuff.

Here is where things start to get really good. The views get even better as you get out of the city area.

I’m pretty convinced that all the safety issues up to this point are surmountable, but I think city lawyers might get a bit nervous about the part where the trail approaches an active train line. They’re far enough apart that sensible people won’t venture into harm’s way, but if idiot-proof is the standard we’re using, we might run into some difficulties with this:

We’re still in Easton at this point, and the views of the canal are amazing in the lead up to the bridge into New Jersey:

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Here’s what it looks like crossing the bridge into Phillipsburg:

This is my favorite part of the trip. When you get into Phillipsburg, you enter right into a pretty decent part of Phillipsburg. There’s an area to look out on the water, and there is also a bar (on the left). Actually there are multiple bars within a short walk. This area could be much better-landscaped, with more food vendors, eateries, and green space. The trail wouldn’t just be a fun curiosity, it would be a useful way to walk or bike between downtown cultural offerings in Easton, and food and drink in Phillipsburg, connecting the two downtowns in a very scenic loop.

And as you continue along, you get to the area right across the free bridge. There’s a beer store, there’s the train car diner, and some other eateries:

The trail continues on past the free bridge for quite a while, and just as on the Easton side, it could be used as a catalyst for redevelopment of the waterfront if paired with enlightened land use and tax policies.

I’m not sure how high of a priority a project like this could be for Easton at the moment, with so many other things going on, but if I were King of Phillipsburg (or whatever they have over there) I would be beating down Sal Panto’s door to start holding talks between city staffers on this, because Phillipsburg badly needs a piece of that Easton magic. The two sides of the river could eventually come to be seen as one big downtown if the two city governments made an effort to collaborate on more joint redevelopment projects like this, and a rail park could be just the thing to spark some private development interest on the presently undesirable parcels around either side of the trail.

I encourage Eastonians, and really everybody in the Lehigh Valley, to go take this walk, not get caught, and then spread the word to Easton’s elected officials and planners that you want them to get an official study going in the New Year!

The Pro-Market Plan for Zoned Hauling in Bethlehem

A single trash hauler is the cheapest, greenest, and most efficient option for Bethlehem residents and city government without question, but Bob Donchez and Eric Evans think keeping a handful of redundant trash haulers in business is a more important priority than winning residents hundreds of dollars a year in savings from group purchasing, so it’s not on the table.

But every elected official still knows the current Wild West system is a failure, so now a “zoned hauling” plan is under discussion.

This basically means that each neighborhood would have a specific day for trash pick-up, which we really ought to consider the minimum acceptable outcome. It’s weak sauce though and city leaders can do better.

That’s why I’m proposing my own zoned hauling plan. Here’s how it works:

1. Divide Bethlehem into 4 “zones” – North, South, East, and West.

2. Put contracts out for bid on each of these zones, for 2-3 years maximum duration.

3. Allow trash hauling companies to bid on the contracts for up to 2 of the 4 zones.

4. Hold one or two public meetings in the different zones to review the bids, get public input, and get an advisory-only vote from neighbors on the plans they like best.

5. Take a Council vote to award the contracts to the highest value proposals (trading off comprehensiveness of the service package, lowest price, and meeting participant preference).

6. Do it all again in 2-3 years.

The virtues of this plan over the current system where each household chooses their own hauler are many.

For starters you actually get some meaningful competition. The problem with the current market is that there’s no way to know if you’re actually going to get better service for your money by switching haulers.

Under my plan, haulers have to compete on price and service quality with each other in a transparent way. And there’s a clear easy-to-understand process for evaluating haulers’ performance.

They have to participate in public meetings and defend their performance in front of neighbors and elected officials every few years to keep their contracts, so there’s an incentive for good behavior and great service.

You get real (albeit collective) choice in a real market. At the same time, you get the economy of scale of a single hauler, without concentrated service provider power limiting the cost savings captured by residents. There’d be real competition in each bidding period, not just a referendum on the current hauler with no meaningful alternative.

If people want a free market, Bethlehem should create a real market that is capable of doing what highly functional markets do best: shave service provider profits down close to the cost of production, for the benefit of consumers.

No More Surface Parking on Bethlehem Steel Land

You and I both know Bass Pro shops would want a humongous surface parking lot as part of any deal on the No. 2 Machine Shop. I have no idea why anyone thinks that a hunting and fishing store is a good fit for an urban core location, but if they want a surface parking lot that should be a deal-breaker. Either they build structured parking or no go.

I know some people think these parking lots can be redeveloped later, but I don’t see the evidence that the site is developing in a way that will easily facilitate urban infill construction later. It would be a tragedy if this site turned into something like the Promenade Shops. It should just be more Southside street grid, best accessible on foot or transit, with cars a lower priority mode.

The benefit of not having to “blaze a new identity for Bethlehem is that you can be picky about design stuff like that and demand concessions from developers. You don’t have to kiss their asses and sacrifice your site plans.

Now, as he prepares to be sworn in to the city’s top office Monday, Donchez is tasked not with blazing a new identity for Bethlehem, but with finding a way to keep the good things coming while dealing with a more sober fiscal reality that has shrunk city government in recent years.

“We have to maintain the momentum,” Donchez said.

His first-year agenda is packed with flashy economic development projects like courting a Bass Pro sporting goods store for the old Steel plant and, by year’s end, nuts-and-bolts labor negotiations with police and fire unions, both of which took significant retirement cuts for new employees in the current contract.

When Will the First Phase of the Bethlehem Greenway Be Completed?

The final phase of the Bethlehem Greenway trail is going to get built soon, all the way down to Saucon Park, but I’m wondering when the first section of the trail is going to be completed, between the entrance on New St. and the area across the Banana Factory buildings on 3rd Street:

This matters because this area of the trail is going to run between the big new building on the corner of New and 3rd and the new BPA parking garage on New Street. I am encouraging everyone to think about what those buildings are going to look like from the vantage point of someone walking on the Greenway trail, instead of just the frontage on New Street, because whether the sides of the buildings look good from other angles (i.e. have wrap-around ground-floor retail) will impact development interest on the parcels next to Comfort Suites.

Also, just to put it out there, you gotta get rid of that Comfort Suites at some point. Those walls of dead space for pedestrians on 3rd Street and Brodhead Ave, gah!

Top 30 Albums of 2013

This is not why you come here, but at the same time as I am reading all the politics news I’m also fiendishly sampling new music from the Internet. Here are my top 10 favorites, with lots of honorable mentions and singles.

10 Most Favorite Albums (in no particular order)

1. J. Cole – Born Sinner (beat the unlistenable ‘Yeezus’ on the Billboard charts for a good reason. Genius feel-good melodies and the live band add so much)

2. Toro Y Moi – Anything in Return (perfect smart pop album)

3. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (very strong second effort from King Push. ‘Hold On’ is a classic)

4. Celestial Shore – 10x (Bonkers guitar-driven math rock jawns, like if Dirty Projectors were fronted by Phil Elvrum)

5. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze (the chillest jams from Philly’s favorite son)

6. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris (the long-awaited debut from the teen rapper who mysterious disappeared – his mom sensibly sent him to boarding school for a couple years so fame wouldn’t ruin his life – totally delivered. Darker and weirder than expected.)

7. Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio 2 (just found out about Glasper – a pianist with one foot in hip hop and one foot in jazz. The drummer on this album is amazing. I like Black Radio Rediscovered Remix EP best (this adaptation of Little Dragon’s ‘Twice’ with ?uestlove and Solange Knowles is so magical), but this one just came out this fall)

8. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (unless you were living in a cave this summer, you’ve been hearing this everywhere, and rightly so)

9. Pete Rock & Camp Lo – 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s (This is a mixtape, but good enough to make the top albums. Giant pioneers of the jazzy hip hop genre you love who’ve still got it.)

10. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part II (Part 1 had some very strong tracks but was mixed overall. Pretty much every song is awesome on Part II)

20 More Great Albums

1. Ty Segall – Reverse Shark Attack
2. Thundercat – Apocalypse
3. Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat
4. Pissed Jeans – Honeys
5. Durag Dynasty – 360 Waves
6. Scienze – Ella
7. Phoenix – Bankrupt!
8. Black Milk – Synth or Soul
9. Gold Panda – Half of Where You Live
10. Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go
11. Pity Sex – Feast of Love
12. Kishi Bashi – 151a
13. Shigeto – No Better Time Than Now
14. Volcano Choir – Repave
15. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
16. Kooley High – Presents…David Thompson
17. Oddisee – The Beauty in All
18. Lapalux – Nostalchic
19. Samiyam – Wish You Were Here
20. Boldy James – My 1st Chemistry Set

Top 30 Bangers

1. Big Sean – Control (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica) (Best rap single of the year)
2. Shlohmo – Bo Peep (Do U Right) feat. Jeremih
3. Roc Marciano – Ruff Town
4. Chance the Rapper – Juice
5. Mac Miller – S.D.S. (prod. Flying Lotus)
6. Thundercat – Heartbreaks + Setbacks
7. Toro Y Moi – So Many Details
8. Oh No – Jones’s (feat. Blu and MED)
9. Ty Segall & Mikal Cronin – I Wear Black
10. Durag Dynasty – Tender Greens
11.  Kurt Vile – Shame Chamber
12. The Black Opera – Manute Bol
13. J. Cole – Crooked Smile
14. J. Cole – Born Sinner
15. Gold Panda – The Most Livable City
16. Scienze – The Toast (feat. D. Julien)
17. Mayer Hawthorne – Back Seat Lover
18. Pete Rock & Camp Lo – Megan Good
19. Earl Sweatshirt – Hive
20. Earl Sweatshirt – 20 Wave Caps
21. Volcano Choir – Tiderays
22. Celestial Shore – Valerie
23. Klaus Layer – Illest in Charge (feat. Blu)
24. Danny Brown – The Return (feat Freddie Gibbs)
25. Pusha T – Hold On
26. Samiyam – Hummus (feat. The Alchemist)
27. Boldy James – You Know
28. Roc Marciano – The Sacrifice
29. Daft Punk – Fragments of Time
30. Lapalux – Walking Words