At last week’s City Council session Jannie Blackwell introduced a short bill requiring that anyone wishing to place a bench, planter, or street furniture on a public sidewalk would first need to get the support of their district council person.
The bill crept into the public consciousness over the weekend. By Monday morning a tsunami of discontent engulfed the West Philadelphia councilwoman’s office. The urbanist political group Fifth Square launched an online petition against Blackwell’s effort that garnered 500 signatures in less than two hours. Blog posts popped up lambasting it.
Blackwell says her office fielded enough phone calls from concerned constituents that by mid-afternoon on Monday, she’d decided to indefinitely table her proposal.
“I’m sorry about this bill, I didn't know there was so much controversy about it,” Blackwell told PlanPhilly after describing her intention to scrap the legislation. “I had a senior call me and say she didn’t want anybody bothering her planter. We weren't trying to hurt anybody, so we're just going to hold everything.”
A permit is already required from the Department of License and Inspections to place street furniture or planters on a public sidewalk. The bill would have required applicants to first get the permission of their councilperson.
“Each district council person represents 160,000 residents,” says Jake Liefer of the 5th Square. “I can't imagine what would happen if something like this were actually enforced. The ramifications it would have for city council…it would shut them down. It would be overwhelming.”
There is much speculation about what spurred Blackwell to introduce the bill. The University City District frequently engages in small-scale efforts to improve the streetscape and sidewalk within its boundaries, which fall within Blackwell’s district. Most recently they installed a new bench for transit riders at the intersection of Baltimore and 47th Street. Other efforts include The Porch at 30th Street Station and a series of traffic calming efforts on Baltimore Avenue.
“Our understanding of the sidewalk behavior bill is that it was introduced to manage vendor-related issues,” says Chris Richman, communications manager with the University City District. “With regard to street furniture and other amenities, the Councilwoman has been a very progressive partner to UCD and others on a wide variety of impactful placemaking measures over the years.”
Asked what prompted her to introduce the sidewalk bill, Blackwell tells PlanPhily her staff were getting calls from long-established vendors in the University City area who resented encroachments on their current uses of the public sidewalk.
“We didn’t want people who had been there for years to be hurt,” says Blackwell. “Some little vending programs were all of a sudden told that they have to move because they want to put in bikes or something. They felt they were being displaced because something else came and they weren’t even being notified.”
Asked where these vendors were based Blackwell conferred with staffers and said, “University City area vendors and UCD. So, we’ll talk with everybody and try to please everybody.”
Blackwell says that she will instead try to have a meeting with University City District and other concerned parties instead of trying to legislate the issue.
Update: Councilwoman Blackwell's office tells PlanPhilly that the bill should have only been targeted towards commercial properties, but that the language was written far too broadly. They are not sure, at this juncture, whether it will be reintroduced.