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Bullish About Philadelphia

by Kenneth J. Fleisher
When I moved into Center City in 1982, its boundaries were from Lombard to Vine. Now it’s Federal Street to Fishtown. Skid Row is now the Loft District. The Tenderloin is Midtown Village. Instead of rolling up the sidewalks at the end of the day, we eat and drink at sidewalk cafes. From no building higher than the top of Billy Penn’s hat, we now have the tallest building between New York and Chicago. Just outside of Center City, Baltimore Avenue is packed with great restaurants and shops instead of empty storefronts and the beautiful, Victorian-era homes of Powelton Village, Spruce Hill and West Poplar have been renovated. Instead of a small arts community squeezed into a few blocks on South Street, we now have Fringe Arts, Avenue of the Arts, the University of the Arts and a seemingly infinite number of outstanding theater and dance companies. No longer do we stand in endless lines at the Municipal Services Building; now, we go online to Phila.gov to seek up-to-date, accurate information about city programs, file for permits and obtain information about city services and events. And, Philadelphia is now a World Heritage City which plays host to Welcome America, Live 8, religious figures and national political conventions.

So, what factors combined over three decades to allow this great city to shine? A brief and, doubtless, incomplete list follows:

• Developers working alongside a strong historic preservation community to construct, rehabilitate and expand the vast array of residential options available, often in neighborhoods where nobody dared venture after dark

• The efforts and risks taken by arguably the finest group of civic-minded chefs-entrepreneurs in the world, who have made eating out in Philadelphia an international phenomenon, beginning with the Restaurant Renaissance of the 1970s and continuing today

• Hundreds of millions of dollars invested in real estate and human capital by our peerless academic, arts, cultural and medical institutions, resulting in the transformation of formerly downtrodden neighborhoods and thousands of jobs in state-of-the-art professional facilities: just look at University City, Powelton Village and the North Broad Street corridor up to and around Temple University and see the difference in how those areas appear today as opposed to 30 years ago

• An excellent (yes, that’s right) public transportation infrastructure, now supplemented by bike lanes and river walks along both the Delaware and the Schuylkill used both for commuting and recreation and which will also eventually allow unimpeded passage from Fort Mifflin to Valley Forge— think about that

• The coordinated efforts of civic and political leaders and organizations such as the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation and Congreso de Latinos Unidos, which have recognized and now promote the limitless potential of Philadelphia’s citizens, neighborhoods and incomparable historic sites, making our city an international “must-see” destination

• The work of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, Philadelphia Housing Authority and other city and state agencies whose programs and investments have transformed the Navy Yard, East Poplar, Southwark and numerous other areas throughout the city

Is there more work to do? No doubt. Our public schools must continue to improve until everyone recognizes they are the best in the country, as they should be. City taxes are too often seen as a burden instead of as a reasonable cost of doing business for the governmental services and assets provided. Despite the growth of Center City and surrounding neighborhoods, the poverty level remains staggeringly high. Long-time residents of newly developing areas worry about real estate taxes becoming unaffordable due to spikes in property values.

Solutions? To begin, no long-term investment in our city’s future is more important than human capital. Neighborhoods are anchored by local schools. Our institutions of higher learning, business community, parents and teachers must work together to upgrade the physical facilities, the libraries, computers, books and safety features of our schools. Everyone proclaims the same goal—better schools—so all interested parties must sit in one room and plan for what the schools will provide in the next five, 10 and 25 years. Working together, those improvements can be made within the time frame of one generation of students. Doubts? Well, 10 years ago, would anyone think of buying lattes in East Kensington?

There must also be neighborhood investment outside of greater Center City. That train is chugging along admirably. Let’s fund commercial development in zip codes which don’t currently have a Starbucks. Every small business owner needs to feel as important as our largest corporate citizen.

If we work together, we can do this.

Kenneth J. Fleisher is a shareholder and chair of Zarwin Baum’s Real Estate & Financial Services Departments. He is the former chair of the Real Property Section of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 2006 and is a frequent lecturer teaching continuing legal education courses on real estate and real estate litigation issues.

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 10 (September, 2016).
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