PlanPhilly

Incoming First District Councilman Mark Squilla says East Market Street is his first priority

    • New First District Councilman Mark Squilla
      New First District Councilman Mark Squilla

Today, Philadelphia's First Council District is represented by someone new: Whitman native Mark Squilla, 49, who takes over the job held by veteran councilman Frank DiCicco, who decided not to seek re-election this year.

PlanPhilly recently met with Squilla - who has been married for 21 years and has four children from ages 16 to 21- to talk about his goals for the first district, how he'll represent an area with such a diverse population, and how he'll be like, and unlike, DiCicco – whom he calls “Frankie.”

Squilla said right out of the gate, he'll work on improving the Market East area and The Gallery – projects that DiCicco also devoted much effort to changing. He wants people living in the northern end of the first district, in neighborhoods such as Kensington and Port Richmond and Bridesburg, to know he'll be working with them regularly. There's growth coming to these neighborhoods, he said, and it must be handled carefully. 

Squilla also talks about the Central Delaware Waterfront and how to get developers on board with fulfilling the goals of the Master Plan, zoning via city ordinance and the need to boost the city's technology.

Here's more of the discussion, as verbatim as possible, except items in parenthesis:

PlanPhilly:  So, congratulations, first of all, Mark, on becoming the new first district councilman.

Mark Squilla: Thank you very much.

PP: So, what are some of your goals for your first year in office?
MS: Well, I have a lot of them. I think the major one, the first initial one that I want to work on is obviously Market East. We have the Gallery project, and looking to try to secure some new retail and some new changes to the Gallery. And make the area between the historic area between Fifth and Sixth Street up to City Hall, make it a vibrant place to go. It's almost a dead zone between those areas. And I think we have a great opportunity to change that around. I'd like to work with the administration, and just basically some developers and retailers to come in there and really spruce that up. And make that a destination place for our city.

PP: Your predecessor, Councilman DiCicco, he talked about that area, and it was his work that created an advertising district for the area. That's now law. Do you think that can help revitalize the area?
MS: I think it will help. I think the incentive to put $10 million into your property in order to get the signage that you want, it's a great bonus to the area. We need to direct people into that area, and I think the best way to do that is by having them invest in those properties. And then by investing in those properties, they get the right to put signage up, that I think will draw attention to it, and also draw people to the area.

PP: What sort of businesses do you think that area needs?
MS: Obviously I think we need to open up the area more, the Gallery, there's some ideas to have access to the street from the Gallery.

PP: Oh, the physical building...
MS: The physical building, yes. And to have people be able to walk by, and walk into the store from the outside, and then go into the Gallery. Also, just create a way that people would want to go there. Right now, it's not a destination spot. It's not listed as a tourist spot for the City of Philadelphia. I mean, it's in a great location, it's right by the Convention Center. It's only blocks away from our historic area. It's right by City Hall. We have the Marriott, we have all these things that people go to, and yet nobody goes into the Gallery. So I'm hoping that by opening up, and having new retail – I was thinking like a Crate & Barrel, or other stores that would not only help the tourism industry, but the people who actually live in that area, to feel like they would go there and shop. We can't just have a hangout for kids after school. We need to, obviously, clean it up a little bit. I think if we could actually get  people to want to go there, and then we'll have people wanting to live there. And that's the key to growing our neighborhoods, and the key to growing our city.

Watch the interview on video.

PP: We were talking a minute ago about how the first district is so diverse, it's diverse in just about any way you can think of. How do you represent such a group of communities, that in some ways are very different from each other?
MS: That's going to be a challenge. I think growing up as a community activist, and being a president of a civic association, you sort of understand neighborhood concepts. We have a very diverse area from a lot of the new Asian immigrants that are down in the South Philly area, with the Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. We have Chinatown. We have the Kensington area with a lot of Mexican and poor population.

I mean, not only are we diverse in heritage, but we're diverse in economics. We have people in Center City who are on the higher echelon of the realm as far as finances are concerned, and we have people on welfare that need a lot of attention. 

I'd like to work with Habitat for Humanity to help spur some of those areas. I've met with them, and they're looking to get involved in some of the Kensington area. To give the people hope and now that there are people out there who care about them, and want to help them. I think if we do that, then they start helping themselves, where they believe that the city is not just there to use them and abuse them, but to actually help them, and become a neighborhood again. Because a lot of those neighborhoods are just places where nobody wants to venture into.

PP: How can you as a councilman encourage an organization like Habitat for Humanity to come into the area you represent?
MS: Well, I think we have to actually reach out to them. I've reached out to them already – as a matter of fact, they've reached out to me, and are looking at different areas to help out. Whether it's South Philadelphia, the poorer areas of South Philadelphia, or the Kensington area. They want to help the underprivileged. ... And I think it meshes with my goal to create communities and create neighborhoods again.

I think we've hit a point where people who have been here for awhile think nobody cares about them. And I think Habitat has the ability to go in there and maybe fix a house up, and then have a person who was maybe renting in a house that was deteriorating able to buy a home, and then they start to feel good about themselves. And then the people around them feel good about themselves, and that's how I would like to build those communities.

PP:
As a councilman, do you think that you would be able to facilitate the process where vacant properties could be turned over to Habitat?
MS: That could be part of the process. Habitat is always looking. Now, they have, I can't think of the name of it, but it's a new store they've opened up...

PP: Restore.
MS: Yeah. Right. Exactly. On Jasper Street up there. And anybody who does construction or is repairing old houses and gets rid of appliances or cabinets, they'll actually go and get them from you and then resell them at a lower rate to people who are looking to improve their properties. I also think that the city is very interested in doing things for the people who cannot help themselves, and also for our senior citizens, whether it's senior housing. And if we're able to get, if it's not federal funding, then maybe some state funding, and state ways that we could actually bring money in, and we have the actual ground that's owned by the city, we would like to partner with them. And I would like to have the city work with the RDA (Redevelopment Authority) to either transfer the properties to these agencies or, at a low nominal cost, be able to rebuild – and you keep hearing that over again, to rebuild the neighborhoods – and we could do that as a city, we could help. Because we have the properties that we don't want to manage, we don't want to take care of, and then we have the people who want to actually help these communities. If we give it to them, they could help partnership with the city to make it happen.

PP: Some of the neighborhoods, Kensington for one, seem to be entering a period of transition, in a way that maybe Northern Liberties was not so long ago. How do you develop the neighborhood and foster economic prosperity, and at the same time make sure that everyone who lives there now can stay?
MS: That's a very difficult issue. I even found out in some of the other neighborhoods throughout South Philadelphia and even Northern Liberties and other areas where you have generational people living there – people who have lived there for a very long time. And newer people come in, and they are very excited about the neighborhood and they create friends groups. And they take care of the playgrounds and they maybe join civic organizations.

Sometimes there's a conflict between the generational people and the new people. And this isn't necessarily racial. It's just the people who are new moving into the neighborhood versus the people who are old. And what we've been trying to do, and what we'll have to do in the future moving forward, is to actually have the new people moving in understand the older people who have been there for years.

The problem that I see is that the older people who have been there, are almost like 'this is the way it is, it will never change.' And they really don't get involved as much in the community. We have the newer people that are getting involved, communicating with each other, trying to come up with new ways to do good things for their neighborhoods. But there is sort of a disconnect between the older people and the new Philadelphians.

PP: So, as a city councilman, how can you address that?
MS: Well what we did, as far as some of the meetings, we asked them how do you communicate with the people in the community...

PP:...I'm sorry. This is, at your civic?
MS: This is not my civic, this is at civics throughout the district..
PP: OK
MS: Whether its New Kensington CDC, whether its EKNA (East Kensington Neighbors Association) or Bella Vista or even Columbus Square ... the newer people who come in obviously communicate a lot through email, and a lot of the older people, who don't even have computers, sometimes feel left out. So we work with them to maybe put some signage up for when they have meetings, whether it's just on a pole on each street or having the block captains actually distribute the information so that it's all inclusive of the older people who are there with the newer people who are moving in.

What they find out in the end is that they both really want the same thing, they just go about it in a different way. And newer people may use more technology to do it. And the older people may use grit, and you know, a broom and a bucket to do it. It's just a matter of getting them to understand each other, and realize they both want the same thing. And once that happens, I think we'll be fine.

PP: So when there is a community meeting that you will be attending as a councilman, you would be encouraging those different modes of communication so that everyone comes. And just saying to the people who are new and excited “make sure you include...
MS: “...include the people who have lived there for a long time. ... I mean, unfortunately, the issue is when you sometimes develop an area, the value of the homes go up, and so the property taxes go up. And sometimes we have to be careful in how we do that, because you don't want to chase the people out, necessarily, who have lived there forever, who are comfortable there, and really don't have the resources to do much. I think if we could partnership with the newer people who come in, and with different organizations, we could find ways to keep these people within the community, and also a part of the community.

PP:
So ways both to have the long term residents feel like they're still connected and still important, but also ways to financially make it feasible for them to stay, even as property values rise.
MS:
Right.

PP:
So, you are following into office Councilman DiCicco, who's been there for a very long time.
MS: Sixteen years.

PP:
Sixteen years is a long time. So, I'd like to talk with you about some things that you've learned from him that you'd like to emulate, and then some ways in which you think that you'll be a different councilman. So let's start with the former. What are some things that people might recognize a little bit of his style in your style?
MS: Well, I think Frankie was a grassroots guy, especially at the very beginning. He had the gloves on, sweeping up and cleaning up, and he let people know that he's a part of the neighborhoods. I think in the very beginning, Frankie reached out to the whole district, from South Philadelphia on through the northern end. And then we'll get into what happened after that. But I want people to realize that I think Frankie was very accessible. I think if you called him, that he would respond. Whether it was by email or a phone call back. I'd like for the people to think of me as the same way. I want to be as accessible as possible. I want to be at as many meetings as possible. I know I can't make them all. But if I can't be there and they want me to be there, we can send a staffer, somebody from my office, to be a part of that. It's very important for the people to think, and know, that you are there to help them, and to work on things together, not by themselves. I think people did that a lot. Especially in the beginning.

PP: So you intend to be accessible, and to go to meetings, or if you can't make it, to send a representative, in the same way that he did. You want to hold on to your grass roots start. How do you do that?
MS: I know people say it's hard, you know, and a lot of people say, you know, you never forget where you come from. And the easiest way to do that is you never leave. I've been in South Philly my whole life. I grew up around the Sixth and Porter area, Fifth and Porter area, and then when I got married I moved to Front and Snyder, still in the same Parish, per se, which is a church in South Philadelphia.

The way you build neighborhoods is around churches, and that's how the city was sort of built. But the second place you do it is around parks and playgrounds. I think it's very important to have open space, places for people to go and gather. Whether it's on the river at the Race Street Pier, or whether it's just a park in their neighborhoods where it's a grassy area where they can just sit and read a book or have a picnic.

I think we need people to take ownership of these areas. The city is unfortunately not able to take care of them as well as they were in the past. We need to partner with these communities and start friends groups. I think once you include people in the process, I think the rewards you get from them being involved outweighs any detriment it can bring from them calling your office and begging you for certain things. (Squilla was at least half-joking on that last point).

PP: So as a councilman, when your term starts, you're still going to be still working at the community level to do things like foster friends groups. If you see a park that needs help, that's not being maintained properly, for example, you'll be in there trying to get people together to do that?
MS: Yes.

PP: What are some of the ways in which First District residents can expect you to be different from Councilman DiCicco?
MS: Well I think, you know, obviously, maybe this is a reason why they should have term limits. But after you've been in awhile, you sort of do a little less, I think, of the community partnership than you do with  ...as you did at the beginning. I think Frankie kind of lost connection a little bit with the northern end of the district, above the Northern Liberties, from Northern Liberties up north to Kensington and Port Richmond, Fishtown areas. I think it's important for people up there to realize that there is a councilman who represents them. And that we'll be up there as much as they want us to be, and to try to help them in doing the things that they want to do. I believe, in this district, that area is going to be the area that grows the most – the northern end of the district. We have a lot of opportunity up there. I'd like to help them any way that we can. There's some good CDCs out there, and civic groups, and I want to meet with them periodically to find out what there needs and concerns are, and let them know that I'm the councilman for the whole district, and not just Center City or South Philadelphia.

PP: Is there anything in particular, or any things in particular that happened that happened, in particular, that made you think Councilman DiCicco hand kind of lost touch with the north end?
MS: Well, during the campaign, we were campaigning up in Port Richmond and up in the north areas, and everybody you turned to said that 'we don't see the councilman up here.'  We do everything on our own, or we go to our state rep in this area, and even for city services, they never really work with the councilman's office. So, I understood that, and you could feel sort of the animosity from the people when you were campaigning that they always felt the northern end was a lot less focused on than the southern end of the district and Center City.  And I told them that I would make that a priority when I was running, and I continue to believe that I will do that. And I'm going to need their help to do that. Just to be able to stay involved, and let them know that I'm there for them. And in the next four years, you're going to see a big change in how the people in the northern end of the district feel, compared to how they feel now, at the start of this.

PP: And you think that that northern end is where the growth is going to be?
MS: Yes.

PP: What do you think that that end needs?
MS: I think they need organization. They need to know that the city is willing to help them. There's a lot of city owned property and abandoned lots in those areas. We need to be able to coordinate with the city and with the community groups and the CDCs to see what they want to do in there area. I think it's important to see what each group ... what I asked those groups to do is to come up with like a Master Plan. Where do you want to see this area in five years? Where do you want to see this area in 10 years? And then, help them get to that by using the resources of the city, or the properties that the city owns, or even the abandoned lots that are out there that maybe we'd be able to use and combine with the city-owned lots to make the project happen. But all in the view of what the actual community group or that the neighborhood wants to see in that area.

PP: So if a community group brings you a master plan – I know for example Frankford Avenue has a master plan – or if they are working on a new one, and they bring you up to date on that, you would tailor your goals for the community to those plans?
MS: Absolutely.

PP: Philadelphia has a new zoning code coming in. But we're still under the old zoning code. And I'd like to ask you, what do you think a council person's role is when it comes to zoning? I mean sometimes, instead of going to the ZBA – the Zoning Board of Adjustment – when a zoning change is needed for a project, business people might approach you. And what is your role there?
MS: I think our role, my personal role as a council person, is to meet with developers, find out what their desires are, what kind of development do they want, and then meet with the community, and have the developer meet with community, to see if it fits within their needs, and what they want their community to look like.

Obviously, there's always, sometimes, discrepancies in the beginning. But hopefully you're able to work with the developer to make it work with new development, but also grow the community in a way that you see fits to what you want it to be.

PP: So, I get what you're saying, Mark, that you want to talk to developers, but also talk to the community and make sure developers and the community are talking, and see if they can't find common ground. What if common ground is not found? Would you encourage developers to go to the ZBA, or are there cases where you think legislation through city council could be the way to go?
MS: Sort of like spot zoning?

PP:That's what some people say. When there is a bill through city council, some people do say it is spot zoning.
MS: If we exhaust every avenue of effort trying to work out agreements with the community and the developer, and it comes to a, no other solution but to have it done or not have it done, I think it would have to be weighed on a case-by-case basis. I don't know if I wouldn't exercise ... 'alright guys, you can't agree, I'm going to go with the developer here, and I'm going to zone this through legislation and not go through the zoning board or the planning commission to make it happen.' (Note: Zoning bills are reviewed by the planning commission). If you want me to say that I would never do that, I don't know that I would say I would never do it. But it would be a last resort to make something happen. A lot of times the community is split 50-50...right down the middle, and as a councilperson, I think you have to weigh in on that, and sometimes make a decision that's going to make half the people mad and the other half happy. That would be the only time, I think, I would weigh in on maybe, looking to legislate some zoning.

I know with the new zoning reform, the variances are supposed to be a lot harder to get. They want to do as-of-right zoning a lot more. But I still think it all has to be done with community input. I'm still curious to see how the R.O.'s work – the registered organizations that they are going to use. I didn't see the final language on what the registered organizations have to be. Do they have to meet once a year, or every quarter, do they have to have public meetings, do they have to have elections? I don't know if you know that off the top of your head.

PP: Not off the top of my head. (PlanPhilly's zoing reporter Jared Brey wrote about these issues here.)
MS: But I think that could either be a good thing or a bad thing, if allow any registered organization to pop up ... sometimes you'll have communities fighting against each other for the same project...

PP:
So If I understand, you would encourage developers to go through other means. And you're not saying that there wouldn't be any time that a zoning bill would be the tool used, that you would introduce zoning legislation, but you would want that to be a fairly rare occurrence.
MS: Very rare. As rare as possible.

PP: We talked a little bit, I think it was last week, about a project with Finnegan's Wake. The owner there was hoping to have Bodine Street condemned – a portion of it - so he could expand his property. I know negotiations there are still going on, so that (streets) legislation didn't go through. But you had said that if there is an agreement between developer and community, that you would be willing to introduce legislation, but if the community and the developer cannot reach an agreement, then you would want to hold off.
MS: That's exactly it. I still feel the same way. Last time I heard they were close to some kind of agreement, and that it was not only the street, but there were concerns about open patios...

PP: That's right. They are talking about having them face Spring Garden Street instead of Bodine...
MS: I think the community actually came up with that idea. I'm not sure of all the details of it, or whether street was stricken...

PP: The street was not stricken, and from what I've heard, the current discussion is the street would not be stricken, but would be moved, would be moved further east a bit, to have room both for the street and for the expansion.
MS: If that's something that they. ... I would definitely introduce that. If the community group agreed with that, and that's what they wanted, and the owner agreed with that, I can't see why I wouldn't do it.

PP: So let's talk a little bit about the waterfront ... . Such a great portion of the communities you represent front the water, on the Delaware River. What are your thoughts on the Master Plan?
MS: I'm very excited about it. I believe they did a great job of coming up with proposals. I think there will probably be some changes as we migrate forward. I know that they want the zoning code codified within the master plan to make it easier for developers to understand what is the plan for the waterfront. I think as a whole, and this is a long range goal, but I think we need to be a little more inclusive of the land owners. I think we have to understand that we have to give them incentives to actually develop on the properties, to fit the goals of the master plan.

PP:
What sort of incentives?
MS: The master plan has ideas of having access to the river, street grids down across from the city, down into reaching the river area. And if the landowners maybe agree to that and do that on their properties that they would get, I don't know, maybe either an abatement, or maybe a TIF, or something that would work to help them develop that area.

PP: For anyone who doesn't know, could you explain what a TIF is? (Learn more about tax increment financing here.)
MS: All right. A TIF is a way that, in lieu of, you give the money up front, and then taxes received from that initial investment would be paid off by the taxes that the city receives from the development. So it's almost like you float a bond. You put money out, and then you get it back from the taxes returned in the future. It's opposite the abatement. The abatement works where you go 10 years without paying taxes,  and that gives incentive to sell the property, knowing that they have 10 years where they can pay, well, not no taxes, but lower tax. I believe sometimes a TIF is even a little more appealing, and also gives developers some money upfront in order to help them spawn a project. But, I mean, that is something that would have to be legislated and discussed through council, with DRWC (Delaware River Waterfront Corp.) and CDAG (Central Delaware Advocacy Group) to see if that's something that everybody would agree on. These are just my ideas to try to help. See, I think we have to include the landowners in this whole process because they are the ones who have the property. And it's kind of hard to say, all right, you own that land, but we want you to put two parks, a street, a hotel and some retail shops. And you may lose $5 million dollars, but that's what we want for our master plan. It's not going to happen. No landowner is going to say, 'Ok, that's a great idea!'”

PP: So, the argument that some people make that if this master plan ... if things are developed according to the master plan, everyone's property values are going to increase, and having a street there is going to make the property values increase, that that, in and of itself, is enough to get land owners to do that -  you don't think that's right. You think it's going to take a little more.
MS: Yes. I mean that's my personal opinion. I think we have to. It's always important to have all the stakeholders. It's like having the community members involved in decision making. Well if you don't have the land owners involved in decision making, and they are the ones whose land it is, don't you think they're going to fight you on certain things? And this is just a logical expression. Because if I owned the land, and you didn't include me in the process, I'd be like, I'm not going to do what you want, it's my property. Can you force them to do it? Can you put liens against them? When you do stuff like that, you get people to put their backs up. Now do they fight you in court? Do they sue you? We don't want any of that to happen. So why not include them in the process in the beginning, and then make the transition in this move easier. Now, if they don't do any of the things you want, they do not any incentives.  That's the way I looked at it. Now, if they want to follow the master plan and do things, they'll say, wow, we get  money to do this. But if you don't follow it, then you don't get any incentives.

PP: So it sounds like you think the master plan, plus some sort of incentives, are what it's going to take to bring change to the waterfront. A lot of that property – I know cleanups and things like that are happening – but there hasn't been any active use on some of the property for awhile...
MS: Years and years...

PP: And you think the plan is part of it, but incentivizing the plan is also part of it.
MS:And also inclusion. Alright, so you can incentivize it, but even if you don't include them and tell them the process...I don't know. Maybe DRWC is doing this already. But I didn't see that part of it, either the plan, or hear of any incentives that would go on, or actually hear of meetings with all of the landowners.

PP: Well, in my reporting, DRWC (The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation) and CDAG (The Central Delaware Advocacy Group), both feel that landowners have been reached out to quite a bit, and they can cite examples of different meetings they've had with them. But I also have heard landowners and representatives of landowners saying that they felt there wasn't enough input or that the input didn't come and the right time or in the right way. So I hear all of that.
MS: Right. And I feel CDAG, they are a part of DRWC, but they are like separate entities that communicate with each other.

PP: They are separate.
MS: I think if we sit down as a group, maybe CDAG or DRWC and actually reach out. Because you know, some landowners are saying, 'that doesn't really make sense as part of this master plan. Maybe we could go this way or that way.'  Because when I was at CDAG during the campaign, they asked me, 'would you ever support a variance that would change something that was in the master plan. And the answer that they wanted was to say, 'no I would never do that.' But my answer was a little different.

I'm saying, well, if something came up that we didn't think of, or there was something that would benefit the riverfront, the City of Philadelphia and the surrounding community, and I'm going to say, 'Oh no, sorry. It doesn't fit. You'd need a variance to do that, and you can't do it?' To me, that would be  small-minded and short-sighted.

So I'm going to say, I would support a variance if it fit into what the waterfront wants to be in the future. If you look at Camden waterfront, I'm sure they had a master plan, and I don't think part of the master plan was to have a ballpark on the river. But that opportunity came up, they were able to fit it in, and it worked for that area. So to say you would never change something, or never support a variance, I think would be a little short-sighted.

PP: You had talked about Market East being one of your first legislative priorities, or first goals as a new councilman - one of the things that you're going to go after in the first year. But you said that there were many goals that you had, and I was remiss in not giving you a chance to expound on them. So let me do that now. What are some of the other things that you want to see happen?
MS: I'd like to see job creation. We worked along with, when I was president of Whitman Council, we worked with the South Port project, which is the port down south of Packer Marine Terminal, to actually grow the port to create tens of thousands of new jobs. There's already a port, DRS (Delaware River Stevedores), who won the bid for the RFP for that, and they are looking to invest up to $300 million into build a new facility down there. We have the grounds. We have the transportation with the railroads. It's in a great location.

We were in a position to gain a lot of traffic that's going to go on the river. And obviously dredging is an issue. It's a state issue, federal issue, with certain states wanting it. Pennsylvania obviously wants it, and maybe Jersey or Delaware  has some concerns about it. I believe if we do that ... I want to grow our tax base by creating jobs. Because instead of just taxing people, and coming up with a soda tax or a milk tax or whatever else you want to tax, you grow our tax base, and then we can lower our taxes. So if we get tens of thousands of new jobs, we can now spread the tax base out, and we don't have to constantly hit people over the head.

The other issue besides creating jobs – that's one of them – is we're going to have the real estate tax that's coming up. The AVI – Actual Value Initiative. I believe what we need to do is come up with safeguards first before what we decide the factor will be to make it revenue neutral. Because we've got to come up with ways of protecting our seniors, people who are on fixed incomes, and low income people that may be taxed out of their properties. Whether they happen to live in an area that's booming, or ... you know, some taxes may go down. But I think the majority in the first district will actually go up. So until we come up with these safeguards, I don't think a factor can be determined so we know that the city actually will get the tax revenue that they need to keep the same level that they are receiving now.

PP: So before Actual Value was implemented, you want to see what the effect is on property owners, and  if some people, some of those long-time residents you talked about before, who are now senior citizens, if there are methods to protect them from an increase in tax that they couldn't afford.
MS: Right. And that has to be done before we come up with a tax factor. Because if we do that afterwards, the city would then lose revenue on taxes. And I think that's an important step, something that we probably have to work on right away with the administration, to come up with ways to protect these people.

PP: Are there any other large issues that you see facing the first district?
MS: I think the convention center is something that's very important. I think it's important not only to our tourism industry, but also to the work. It creates a lot of jobs. The more conventions and events that we have in the convention center, it brings a lot more jobs for our trades unions, and also for the hospitality industry of the City of Philadelphia.

PP: Has City Council done enough to foster that convention center and take care of the things that it needs?
MS: I don't want to say whether they did or not, but I think we could do more.

PP: What do you think needs to be done?
MS: I think we need to be very active in coming up with agreements between the administration and the trade unions. I think we have to play a role in trying to court new conventions and new events at the convention center. Whether we reach out on our own, or whether work with the convention center to do these things.

I think we have to really treat people well when they come in to look at it. I think we need to put a positive spin on our city, and show people how much fun Philadelphia really is. We have the historic area, yes, but there are a lot of other things to see besides the historic area in the city of Philadelphia.  Again, we've got to do it collaboratively with everybody included. Because this is not only a tourism industry that gets people to come here, but again it's a way to grow jobs and keep jobs for the city of Philadelphia.


PP: Mark, do you have any political people, or people in politics who you want to be like, or people who you admire?
MS: I think I really respected the way Frankie DiCicco ran the first district. I think he did a lot of things that sometimes were tough decisions, he made tough decisions for the betterment of the city and of the district. I give him great credit with the ten-year tax abatement. I think he really spurred development within the first district, and is showed by the growth of people actually moving into the district. So I would like to model a lot of what I do by the way Frankie did it. With my own little twist, obviously. I want to keep the communities very much involved.


As far as another politician who I really admire, I like to take pieces from everybody. I like to listen to people. I like to even people who ran against me in the primary, I like to reach out to them and talk to them and see what there ideas are. I learned a lot from the three candidates that we ran – Jeff Hornstein, Joe Grace and Vern Anastasio – they all have some neat ideas and every once in awhile I like to call them and reach out and see how I can incorporate all their ideas in what I'd like to do. I think as a whole, if we want the city to grow, we've got to work together to make it a great city. And we can't just worry about whose idea it was whether we do it or not.


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After the video camera was turned off, the conversation continued a bit.

Squilla said he is interested in the on-going effort to create a Callowhill Reading Viaduct Neighborhood Improvement District. More than half of the property owners within the NID zone voted opposed it. City Council unanimously voted to create the district, anyway. DiCicco, sponsor of the legislation, explained after the meeting that the votes still needed to be verified, and this way, if it turned out there was not enough opposition, the NID could proceed.

Squilla said he is especially interested in turning the old viaduct into a park. “It would be great open green space, and it is right by the convention center,” he said.

Squilla also said he'd like to re-examine making Philadelphia a wireless city, with Internet access everywhere.  “We tried Wireless Philadelphia, and it was a great idea, a great concept, but it was a disaster,” he said. But with new technology, such as “cloud” technology, the idea just might be more feasible, and cheaper, to implement. 

There's also a need to improve the technology within City Hall and other city offices, he said. “If you look at the equipment we have, it is antiquated, old and slow,” he said. It takes too long for residents to get information they need, he said.


Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com


About the author

Kellie Patrick Gates, Waterfront, casinos, planning reporter

Kellie Patrick Gates writes about planning, neighborhood development and the Central Delaware Waterfront. A journalist for more than two decades, she  worked for daily newspapers in Central Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and South Florida before coming to Philadelphia in 2003 to write for the Inquirer. Her work has appeared on PlanPhilly since 2007, and she also writes Love, the Inquirer's weekly wedding column. A native of Elk County, Pa., Kellie lives with her husband, Gary, and their dog and two cats.

Follow her on Twitter @KelliePGates



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