In this Sunday's Inquirer, Joel Naroff, a consultant to major developers (of the kind who might profit from large swaths of vacant land), wrote an op-ed claiming that the best way for Philadelphia to improve its fortunes would be to "clear-cut" neighborhoods with high vacancy rates. Essentially, he's advocating that the city take homes and property, by offering buy-outs, or, as he mentions casually, through eminent domain, in the name of saving the city.
His argument seems sound: low density areas still need their trash picked up and their snow plowed, which costs the city about as much money as it would to perform the same services in high-density areas. If housing could be consolidated, it might save the city enough money to move it forward.
Though Naroff's op-ed seems to offer a new solution, it's actually a very old one. The reconfiguration of cities by clearing out poor neighbhorhoods isn't a new idea for urban planning, and it isn't even a new idea in Philly. On twitter, Inga Saffron pointed out that the idea has been tried as recently as the early 2000's, with Mayor John Street's Neighbhorhood transformation initiative.
The NTI is a powerful example of the costs that go along with attempts to "clear-cut" struggling neighborhoods. The program's goal was to demolish 14,000 vacant and derelict buildings. It only succeeded in demolishing about 8,000, at a cost of $181 million. The financial cost aside, the NTI required many families to leave their homes.
A Philly post column reminds Philadelphians that there are enormous costs associated with relocating entire neighbhorhoods: the city would need to offer compensation to people uprooted from their homes, and demolition isn't free either. On top of that, the city would need to manage and effectively market the newly-cleared tracts of land, in the hopes that developers would snap them up. Following Mr. Naroff's suggestions might not be as cost effective as his op-ed would have readers believe.
And, as Philly poverty expert Jeff Deeney points out, Mr. Naroff's vision for Philly's future may not be totally unbiased. After all, he's an economic consultant for companies that would happily capitalize upon vast vacant areas:
Joel Naroff wants to ethnically cleanse N Philly to build industrial parks; consults for developers who build them. http://t.co/T8s0m2qTT6— jeff deeney (@jeff_deeney) August 4, 2013
In fact, Mr. Naroff's consulting firm, Econsult Solutions, even put together an impact study for The Provence, Bart Blatstein's casino megaresort inspired by France. Funnily enough, Mr. Naroff's suggestions seem similar to the Master Plan for Lower North Philadelphia: this article on Plan Philly which advocates urban farming in place of industrial parks, but might employ policies that sound like softer ways of saying "clear-cutting".
· Failure to Adapt [Philadelphia Inquirer]
· Three Reasons to Oppose "Clear Cutting" Poor Philly Neighborhoods [Philly Post]
· Master Plan for 'Semi-Rural' Lower North Philadelphia Might Include Farmland [Curbed Philly]
· More vacant property than can be filled in Lower North Philadelphia [Plan Philly]