PlanPhilly

Q&A with Doug Oliver: Full Version

PlanPhilly: Your campaign has focused a lot on the idea of engaging more Millennials in civic life. What’s your vision? What is the Philadelphia that you want to sell to younger voters?

Doug Oliver: I want them to stay here. We do a good job of getting people to come and learn here at our colleges and universities, we do a good job of getting people to come and play here––our restaurants, our parks, our arts and culture make it a great place to play. But we haven’t yet figured out how to get them to live here. When college is over, play time is more targeted, and people are figuring out how to start a career, raise a family, buy a home. That’s when people start to tune in whether they were tuned in before or not, and it’s at that moment where we start to lose people.

What I always like to say is people date Philadelphia, but then go marry New York.

They’ve got choice, and most people who come here to go to college, apart from their choice of study they’re coming to prepare for the life they want to lead. One of the first choices you get to exercise when you graduate is where you grow roots.

It’s not even that the message is targeted to younger voters, as much as it is about them. Because when we talk about the issues the city’s going to have to address––pensions, health care, schools, public safety, sustainability––these longer term issues, they cannot be solved as long as you have this population churn.

You want to grow your population, you want to grow your tax base––you’ve got to get more people to live here. So the idea is to plan for Millennials, more than appeal to Millennials. If we don’t retain them, then we’re going to have trouble delivering city services to a population that has the least amount of money to pay for them.

I think I can be more effective than any other candidate in understanding what the triggers are that would make someone stay, and developing a plan for how to keep them. Whether they appreciate it now or not is almost a secondary issue.

PP: So do you have any concrete ideas for getting more people to stay after college?

DO: It’s a double-edged sword here, because we’ve got a lot of history and a lot of culture to be retained, and we cling to that––in some cases for good reason. Our history makes us rich. But at the same time, if we’re not careful, it can make us antiquated and obsolete.

We have a school system that’s designed on the agricultural model that says “get ‘em in, and get ‘em out so they can be in the field with their parents by 2 pm.” Are we still at a point where that makes sense?

Then we have an academic model that’s based on a manufacturing model. And all the jobs that have opportunities for growth in the city have nothing to do with either, because those manufacturing jobs have gone away. Now, I’ve got some ideas about how to bring some of those jobs back but when we think about what it takes to keep them here, one of my big ideas is allowing for what we don’t fully understand.

We’re not going to get people to stay because we say we’re going to give you this job and a strong pension. That’s an older model. It’s important that we keep our word to people we made a promise to, but I think a better message for today’s younger people is “what is it that you want to do, and how can I help you or get out of your way?”

Get engaged with government because government needs you, not because you need government. That’s the kind of mindset that will get people to stay. People come here for school and to study because it’s fun, and I need to figure out how to make it fun a little longer than when they would ordinarily check out.

When college is done, people might take an entry level job doing something they don’t really want to do, knowing that what they really want to do is “blank.” Whatever that “blank” is, we need to make it possible for them.

Feeding the entrepreneurial spirit, making the city walkable, bikeable, livable, and planning in a way that they think an urban 2015 city looks like. Let’s plan ahead and think about what people are going to want and start working on that today.

PP: So to segue into the PlanPhilly issues from what you’re saying, I think the walkability and bikeability stuff sometimes strikes people as frivolous compared to some of the big heavy issues like schools and pensions. But when I hear some of the local start-up leaders talk about what they need to attract high quality employees from other big US cities and internationally, the quality of life issues are mentioned pretty frequently. They’re trying to lure people who are highly mobile, who have a lot of choices, and who are choosing a place to live as much as they’re choosing a place to work. They like what New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities are doing around multi-modal transportation, urban design, mixed-use neighborhoods and so on. So what do you think we need to do to be more competitive on that front?

DO: Planning is a forward-looking process, obviously. I think recently the city’s done a good job recently of trying to get their arms around what that actually means as a practical matter. I think for an urban environment like Philadelphia, with so many young people and empty nesters coming into the city, we need to focus on the density of the city––the number of the people and their closeness and proximity to each other.

One of the things I’ve always liked about New York City is that everybody uses everything. It’s not public transportation just for the poor, because if that was the case, that would be the last thing invested in. But because you have the Mayor, a bum, a millionaire, a blue collar worker, and a tourist all on the same train, at all hours of the day and night, you see different priorities.

Access to the waterfront is something that’s been wrestled with for many years. It’s not for private development, it is for the use of our city. Many cities have gotten it right––Baltimore and Washington’s waterfronts are fantastic. What makes them so great is you’ve got your tourists and your residents, all types of people enjoying it and walking around having a good time.

When I close my eyes and envision what our waterfront could look like, it’s much more lively. I see live music, bands, cafes, people going on walks whether they have money to spend or not. I see first dates––people deciding I like it here, I met you here, I want to marry you here, and I want to live here.

PP: On that point, Michael Nutter created the Delaware Waterfront Corporation, and they’ve been doing a lot of interesting work with things like the Spruce Street Harbor Park, the Spring Garden Street Connector project to improve connections between Festival Pier and Northern LibertiesPier 53, and so on to get people over to the waterfront. What else needs to happen to get some of the private development going? There’s a lot of private land over there that landowners are just sort of speculating on.

DO: Well I’ll start by saying there are people far more expert than I am on what it takes, but my layman’s view of it is that you should not be allowed to sit on a resource that is for public good.

There is public access to the waterfront, and while we should encourage those who own private land to do something in the public interest, we should at least maximize those things that we can do on our own. So, finding those three, four, or five entry points to the waterfront and making it clear and obvious that this is what we’re doing. Working with traffic engineers and planning so people know this is all open to you, and these are the key places to access.

And then the hope is that people’s brains start working and they get to thinking they can take advantage of this foot traffic, and that’s when we start to see businesses and residences start to pop up. A lot of people sit on the property because it’s not ripe to develop yet. We need to show them a capital plan and a budget for the next several years for that area and hopefully that will move the process forward.

In the cases where the private developers and governments are looking and saying “who first?” in those cases it must be government. If you have to incentivize with tax credits, we could do that for a while until things get moving and then stop. I’m not a huge fan of tax incentives for development that’s going to happen anyway but looking at our waterfront, we see that it’s not happening.

Maybe we don’t need tax incentives in Center City anymore, maybe we don’t need them in Fishtown or other places that are in a virtuous cycle of development. In the places where it’s not happening, let’s seed it.

PP: Are you thinking that the 10-year abatement is past its time in Center City and some of the faster-appreciating neighborhoods?

DO: I think it many cases it is past its time. I think it’s a very effective tool, but we need to be mindful of how we apply it. We may also need to be mindful about how. Does it have to be 10 years? 10 years is a pretty long time to forego a return.

When we say “hey, come build here and develop here and you don’t have to pay anything for 10 years”––ouch! Because taxes are how we pay for the rest of the city services, and you have to be careful about what you waive when you still have a very very low-income city to fund.

PP: What sometimes gets misunderstood about the politics of the 10-year abatement is that it’s a builder subsidy, right? The actual incidence of the subsidy goes to construction companies, and the purpose is to limit the blow from our high labor costs.

DO: It is, but even notwithstanding high construction costs, they’re high in New York City, they’re high in DC. Relatively speaking, they’re lower here even with our high construction costs. If I want to build a hotel, it might be $20 million over here, it’s $18 million over here, it’s $15 million in Philadelphia. You may build here anyway, because if you’re a hotel builder you’re looking to maximize your value, and Philadelphia is already a huge return on investment as we are.

PP: But the trouble is that in New York rents are high enough that a new hotel still pencils out without a public subsidy even with the high labor costs, whereas in Philly they aren’t. The abatement is filling that gap.

DO: It is. And again, I’m not against the 10-year tax abatement. But when you get to the tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell would call it, and it starts to snowball on its own, can we pull our resources? We still need them. I’ll stop short of saying I’m a fan, but I see the benefit of it.

PP: You think it’s been effective, but you’d like to see it better targeted.

DO: Yeah, like does it have to be 10 everywhere? Can it be 5?

PP: Could you have zones...

DO: Exactly. Could it be based on Community Development Block Grant areas, that take into consideration some of the economic realities? It’s a tool, but it’s a hammer, and it’s not necessarily what you need for every scenario.

PP: It sounds like you’d be more skeptical of using public funding for private development than the status quo in city politics.

DO: I wouldn’t say more skeptical, but I would be more discerning about where we apply it.

PP: How about the new Comcast tower? Do you think that was worthy of public investment? And I don’t mean that as a ‘gotcha’ question. Some of the public money is paying for some public infrastructure upgrades like extending the subway concourse. But is that something we could have asked Comcast to pay for?

DO: It is a challenging question, because here’s our pride and joy, our corporate jewel. And we expect a lot out of them. I don’t think we demand enough, there’s no teeth to it, but they bring a tremendous benefit and cache to the city of Philadelphia, much like our colleges and universities.

You have people here who are expanding, like private developers that are organized as non-profits, so they’re not paying taxes but they bring other value, and Comcast brings other value but they get these subsidies. And I guess I don’t have a problem with doing it when you can, but when you can’t, you can’t.

The question is, would Comcast have enough money to build this on its own without government?

PP: Do you think they would?

DO: I think they would. But so it’s a negotiation. They didn’t have to build their second tower here, they didn’t have to build their first tower here. They have high levels of financial resources, but they also have high levels of choice. And so we are competing. And using money strategically to compete, I don’t have a problem with that, but when it starts to come at the expense of our other obligations, it’s a challenge.

The benefit of the investment has to accrue to the benefit of Philadelphia so we get the money back from that investment in the form of higher wage taxes, real estate taxes, people buying things and spending money, making Philadelphia more vibrant.

PP: We’ve been talking about Center City a lot here but a lot of people also say they want to see more jobs in the neighborhoods too, and neighborhood commercial corridors seem like the obvious targets for investment. What do you think we can do to help commercial corridors?

DO: I think it’s the flipside of what we were just talking about: if we’ve reached the limits of tax abatements in neighborhoods that are really booming, then we now maybe apply that elsewhere. That’s why lining it up with CDBG makes some sense to me because that shows where we need to invest money.

I think for our neighborhoods, it has to be a critical focus of the next Mayor because big box business is one thing, but more people are employed by smaller companies. We have new immigrants coming in and starting businesses in neighborhoods at higher rates than native Philadelphians, and so making it easier for businesses to start, and give them an opportunity to grow is key.

PP: What about the role of zoning and density in the viability of neighborhood commercial corridors? To give an example, and I realize the particular messenger here is politically-charged at the moment, but Ori Feibush has argued that Point Breeze Ave doesn’t have sufficient population density to support the types of commercial uses the neighborhood wants, and he’s proposing to upzone it from CMX-2 to CMX-3. And his point is that if there are more built-in customers in the area, the Ave is more likely to thrive as a commercial strip. Is that something we need to look at?

DO: I think we do, but I think we need to look at it neighborhood by neighborhood to see what’s appropriate. But generally no, I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t have a concern with what he’s suggesting, but let’s come to the table and have a conversation about it and let’s not hold it hostage, which I think is what his concern is.

I think one thing Mayor Nutter and Eva Gladstein did very well was to completely overhaul zoning. It was an amazing lift that they were able to get that passed. Especially in a city where we’ve got 10 Council districts and Councilmanic prerogative. And while I think there’s always going to be some inherent tension between what we say we want to do as a broad brush across the city and what people want to do about individual projects in their districts, I think the purpose of the overhaul was to make sure going to the Zoning Board of Adjustments was the exception and not the rule.

So at least we have this basic and broad understanding of where we want to go. So I think the Mayor’s done a lot of good with the overhaul, but now it’s got to be applied. As the Mayor you can’t go to Council and just dictate––you just can’t––but you can say “remember what we agreed on? We have a commitment to apply the same thinking that caused you to vote yes on this to what you vote yes for under your own Prerogative.”

PP: The difficult part is that the remapping bills aren’t getting passed. The Planning Commission has been going through the process of working with the Registered Community Organizations in the neighborhoods to draft over a hundred remapping bills, but only a little more than a dozen have actually been passed by City Council at this point. The Planning Commission has said they could get their part of zoning remapping done in 3 years for an additional $3 million. What would you do to get the remapping bills the rest of the way done, through City Council?

DO: Without knowing the specific reasons for some of the objections I would ask what I could do on my end to make it easier for them to pass these bills. I would try to paint a picture of where I’m trying to go, and what I’m trying to accomplish, and ask them how they see their plan fitting into that, and how I could adjust mine to fit theirs to find some common ground.

Starting off respecting the person who’s in the position and understanding why they’re in the position is critical to negotiation. It’s just persuasion 101.

PP: We’ve only got a little time left, so if you don’t mind I’m going to jump through some of the remaining questions. We’ve got this bike share system rolling out this spring, and we’re going to have a lot of newbie cyclists and tourists riding on the street who aren’t as experienced. How can we prepare our streets to make things safe for them?

DO: I do like the idea. I met with the Bicycle Coalition, and it was an interesting conversation, because I think I was probably their worst enemy going in but I might be their best friend coming out. Because I had to acknowledge some of my own tendencies and thought processes about driving and about public safety.

I’m a safe driver. I always have been, I’m pleased with my record, and I’ve learned ever since Sesame Street that when I see a green light, that means go. And the red light means stop. And the yellow light means, depending on where you are, if it’s 30 feet away maybe slow down, but if I’m like a foot away that means speed up. And that mindset was challenged by the Bike Coalition, by the number of people who die every year as a result of accidents between vehicles and pedestrians or those on bikes.

And every life is important. We often focus on homicides and violent deaths, but as a practical matter, for the families involved every single life has the same effect on people who have lost their loved ones.

Something as simple as the infrastructure can really change the way people behave. One thing we talked about was how speed limits don’t necessarily drive the behavior that you want and so physical space actually can. So pinching intersections, physical space for bike lanes I think is a good idea, obviously balanced with communities that don’t necessarily want to see their road pinched even more. I think some of the challenge with their agenda is it is viewed as a “war on cars” and I don’t know that it has to be.

So when we talk about bike share, I like that it’s expanding. Zone One is in Center City, and that made it a little bit of a divisive issue, like something you’re giving to rich folks that you’re not giving to everyone else.

What I really liked was Zone Two. But how you present it to neighborhoods is going to be crucial. We want to say “we’re bringing to you what’s been very successful here” rather than “I’m not worried about you getting shot in your neighborhoods, but I do want you to have a bike.” Because if that’s the case, it doesn’t match what people’s concerns are. But if it’s presented as access to jobs, access to groceries, less expensive and time consuming, then it’s in a context that will make sense to people.

PP: Some of the conversation about quality of life issues in greater Center City can sound kind of tone deaf when we have so many huge challenges. I’ve been very eager not to see street safety get lumped into the same category as pop-up beer gardens though, because what we actually see in Philly is that outlying neighborhoods have higher rates of pedestrian fatalities than Center City. In New York, the Vision Zero policy has actually led to a transfer of more city street safety resources into the outer boroughs. I assume this is also something you probably discussed with the Bicycle Coalition? What did you come away with from that conversation?

DO: I think it’s the right thing. Your goal should be zero. We used to talk about this at Philadelphia Gas Works all the time with preventable motor vehicle accidents (PVAs) and our board would always be saying “why do we have a goal of six? Why isn’t it zero?” And there’s always a debate about whether the goal should be a realistic target or the ideal. I think it’s required that you have a Vision Zero policy because it’s hard enough to get people thinking about these things to have a Mayor come in and be thinking about this in an underachieving way.

I think it is a way of framing the way people think about this. It’s basically an investment on further decisions, because if you get people to think this way, then it’s easier to pitch them the ideas that we think may be harder to swallow. At least there’s a framework for it. So I’m a fan of it, and I think some of the recommendations they’ve had––raised crosswalks to start to slow people down, automated speed enforcement.

When you get a ticket at a red light traffic stop, you respect that traffic stop forever. And I got a $100 ticket at Broad and Hunting Park. I will never––you start to know where they are and it’s such a mental impact on the way I approach things. Automated speed enforcement is something that gives people something to think about and doesn’t require police officers to be there and lets them go where they need to be for other reasons.

PP: Mayor Nutter has the Deputy Mayor system and he has a Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities, Rina Cutler, who reports directly to the Mayor on transportation issues. Would you keep MOTU in place?

DO: I’m not sure at this point. I was there in this administration for the first three years and I think I understand why he organized it that way and I think there are lots of benefits of clustering city services under a Deputy Mayor who’s responsible for them and so they’re not operating in silos. One of the challenges to it though is I think it minimized the role of commissioners to a certain extent. And it also added another expensive layer onto government. The question is: was the return on that investment worth it? I’m certainly not at a point where I’m going to say I’m not doing it, but I need to take a look at it. Maybe we cluster things differently.

Maybe there’s a way of reconfiguring things, and as Council President Clarke looks at the reconfiguration of the planning departments and commissions, I think it’s always useful to keep your eyes open to see if there’s a better way of doing things.

PP: What do you think of Clarke’s proposed reorganization?

DO: I’m not familiar with the details of it, and I haven’t had any conversations with him, but he is a sitting Council President, and I think City Council’s job as much as it is the Mayor’s job is to think about how to improve the city.

So I don’t have a problem with people kicking around ideas, and also whether the Council President and the Mayor both wanted it, it’s still got to go to the people. And that’s why I’m such a proponent of getting Philadelphians engaged, because if you don’t go to the polls, you don’t have a say in the reorganization of your government. I don’t have a problem with the idea of reorganization though, and if I’m a successful candidate I’ll sit down with the Council President and see what he’s trying to do.

PP: So one recent twist is that L&I is no longer part of the reorganization plan, when this was originally pitched as Clarke’s alternative plan to reform L&I after the building collapse. And another recent twist is that now there’s an amendment requiring Council confirmation for the director of this new super planning department. Do you support Council confirmation, or do you think it undermines the strong Mayor form of government?

DO: It’s a “strong Mayor” in areas that don’t require legislation. If it’s spending and there’s legislation, it’s not. And even your veto power can be revisited with just two-thirds. So regardless of what they called it, I think they intended for the legislative and executive branches to work together. And I don’t see any way around working together.

PP: But Council doesn’t approve the appointments now.

DO: They don’t, but I think when you’re Mayor and you’re making appointments you have to take into consideration the people those appointments have to serve. And perhaps that’s happened informally with a gentleman’s agreement for many years, but I see some benefit in codifying that. I worked in the Department of Public Welfare at the state and all of the Governor’s appointees are confirmed. Because the general sense is, you’re responsible for such a wide swathe of government that it’s appropriate for legislators to have some say-so. There’s some question about how people will be when they come in, so people are trying to jockey so they can be at the table. I’m not Mayor yet, but I’m thinking about Council, and I think everybody wants to be considered. I’d be interested in sitting down with the Council President to get a better sense of what he’s thinking.

About the author

Jon Geeting

Jon Geeting was Engagement Editor at Plan Philly from 2014-2016. He has also covered city and state politics, land use, transportation, and economic policy for Next City, Keystone Politics, This Old City, Philadelphia Magazine, and City Paper. Jon grew up in Bethlehem, PA and moved to Philadelphia in 2013 after an 11-year detour to New York City. Follow him on Twitter @jongeeting.



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