Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell will be feted at a $250- to $1,000-plate campaign fundraising dinner hosted by a for-profit developer who has benefitted from city land sales orchestrated by the councilwoman. The event comes just seven weeks after activists picketed Blackwell for encouraging gentrification in her booming West Philadelphia district.
A flyer for the Thursday dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood and Steakhouse states that the function will be hosted by developer Rick Young, construction consultant Blane Stoddart and Darwin Beauvais, zoning and land use chair for law firm Dilworth Paxson and a former Blackwell aide.
Young, a former community organizer, recently benefited from his relationship with Blackwell through a feature of the city’s land disposition policy that allowed Council members to steer land to specific buyers.
In March of 2016, the councilwoman directed 13,000 square feet of vacant land near Drexel University to be sold by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to Young’s company, Westview Development Partners. The minutes from the PRA meeting that month state that the property was sold to Westview “at the direction of the Council person.” The sale went through in March of 2017, city records show.
The package of 10 parcels, to be redeveloped as eight market-rate townhomes, sold for just $108,000 –– individual lots nearby routinely sold for $50,000 or more during the same time period. The units, on the 3300 block of Mantua Avenue, are now under construction.
Council President Darrell Clarke employed the same method to steer lots to a student-housing developer. Council passed legislation barring direct sales the same month the lots were sold to Westview, but sales that predated this legislation were exempted from the new practice.
Young had also previously been involved in a multi-year saga to develop a nearby parcel of vacant land for a controversial plan for building a supermarket atop an artist’s studio. Blackwell initially supported that project as well, before the sale deal was terminated by the PRA.
Developers frequently bankroll City Council campaigns, and Philadelphia’s ethics code does not explicitly bar campaign fundraising in the context of city land sales. But Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad, co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, nevertheless described the fundraiser as a legal form of “pay-to-play.”
“You take my money during campaign season, and I’m going to come back to you when I want public land,” said Muhammad, who was arrested in February at a protest action targeting Blackwell. “But Jannie is known for being in bed with developers. This is not a secret.”
Young did not respond to an interview request through an associate. Blackwell declined repeated calls to discuss the fundraising event. Beauvais, who recently hosted a similar fundraiser for 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, also declined to comment. Beauvais was representing the developer who owns Germantown High School in Bass's district at the time of the fundraiser.
Stoddart rejected the notion that the event was a kind of quid pro quo for development favors. He described Blackwell as “a friend” and said that every developer should be interested in staying on the good side of a district Council member.
“Every developer in the city has to go through City Council to get any kind of land,” said the construction consultant. “But there are people who have donated to Jannie and gotten nothing.”
Stoddart said he was involved with the fundraiser because he supported Blackwell’s policies and hoped to usher in another term for the seven-term councilwoman.
“Jannie’s friendly with the business community. But she has a balance in terms of keeping what the community wants in mind.”
Blackwell will face off against former Fairmount Park Conservancy director Jamie Gauthier in the May primary.
Editor's Note: This article was updated to clarify that the PRA board approved the sale of land to Westview Development in 2016 and the sale completed in 2017.