One of the sharpest criticisms levied against Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative last spring, when its enabling legislation was wiggling its way through Council, was a perceived lack of public accountability in the design of the $500 million project to rehab hundreds of the city’s parks, libraries, and rec centers. Throughout the process, the Kenney administration’s Rebuild team maintained an emphasis on “community engagement” as part of the guiding framework of Rebuild. Last week, the administration took one step towards fulfilling that pledge by hosting an inaugural meeting of the Rebuild Oversight Board, one of two ad-hoc committees that have been tasked with monitoring the massive capital project, which might go down as Mayor Kenney’s lasting capital legacy in the city.
The Rebuild Oversight Board members are:
Michael DiBerardinis, Managing Director, City of Philadelphia;
Councilwoman Cindy Bass;
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell;
Councilman Bobby Henon;
Rob Dubow, Director, Finance;
Harold Epps, Deputy Managing Director for Commerce;
Anne Fadullon, Director, Planning and Development;
Ellen Kaplan, Chief Integrity Officer;
Kathryn Ott Lovell, Commissioner, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation;
Siobhan Reardon, President, Free Library of Philadelphia;
Greg Allen, Chair of the Rebuild Committee, The Commission on Parks and Recreation;
Valerie Cofield, President and CEO, Eastern Minority Supplier Development Council;
Janet Haas, Board Chair, William Penn Foundation;
Stacy Holland, Educational Consultant;
Floyd Lebron, Risk Manager, Dale Corporation;
Belinda Mayo, former Director of Neighborhood Program Coordination, OHCD; and
Antonio Valdes, Chief Executive Officer, Children’s Crisis Treatment Center.
Signaling its commitment to engagement, the administration initiated the Rebuild Oversight Board prior to the announcement of the first selection of sites. (Before they’ve been officially announced, anyway.) On the day after Halloween, Rebuild Executive Director Nicole Westerman addressed several dozen members of the public at Kingsessing Rec Center in Southwest Philadelphia to review the ambitious goals of Rebuild, how the city got here, and what to expect from the board — a distinguished group of city officials, organizers, and urbanists — going forward.
“Rebuild is intended to be a generational catch-up in the physical condition of rec centers,” Westerman said, introducing the project. Out of the 406 publicly-run parks, rec centers, playgrounds and libraries in the city, Rebuild aims to make improvements to at least 150. But Westerman emphasized one of the driving edicts behind Rebuild: improving the physical condition of these facilities only represents a piece of the purpose of Rebuild. “We realize that the point is not [only] the physical condition,” Westerman said.
The administration also contends that it’s carefully and intentionally considering the importance “of how we are going to do this work,” she said. Among those approaches will be finding new ways of reaching citizens and incorporating their input into capital projects, in addition to creating a more equitable playing field for the jobs and contacts attached to public projects of this sort.
During quarterly meetings of the Rebuild Oversight Board, which will be open to the public and rotate to different neighborhoods throughout the city, the administration will present updates on how well it’s achieving its diversity goals and delivering on capital spending, followed by a chance for public input and questions.
Last week, many citizens asked about the 800-pound gorilla in the room. “I understand that y'all are in court,” a young woman asked. “But what if y'all don't win? Will there still be money to help Kingsessing?" she asked, referring to the ongoing litigation involving the soda tax, which is the lynchpin financing Rebuild.
“If we do not prevail with the soda tax legislation, there will be no Rebuild,” Westerman said. “We’re still waiting for the state Supreme Court to decide that we can do this,” said Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis, who’s chairing the Rebuild Oversight Board. “We expect that decision in the next few weeks. We are very confident that our case holds up well and we are in our rights to levy the tax.”
Some residents in attendance voiced concerns about the opportunities for minorities to tap into the jobs and contracts that Rebuild promises, echoing the concerns of certain Council members from months ago. Others worried that Rebuild would only benefit the largest rec centers, such as Kingsessing, while neglecting the unheralded facilities tucked away in some neighborhoods. “I just want to make sure the oversight committee makes sure that the smaller recreation centers that have taxpayers paying for with the soda tax, are getting some attention, too,” said Tracey Gordon, a former deputy city commissioner (and perennial candidate for local office). “Who on this board is going to look out for the little ones who are neglected?”