Twenty-First Century Urban Renewal in Philadelphia : The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and its Critics

By Domenic Vitiello

Author note: This article was initiated in collaboration with Rosemary Cubas. It is dedicated to her memory.

Philadelphia is home to one of the most ambitious urban renewal programs in the United States . Mayor John Street ‘s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) began in 2001 with the goal of demolishing some 14,000 vacant buildings, cleaning many of the city’s 40,000 vacant lots and revitalizing neighborhoods with an infusion of 16,000 new housing units. The mayor cast the $300 million program as an effort to reverse fifty years of population loss. In a 2001 press release, NTI’s director, Patricia Smith, hailed it as a new sort of urban renewal for the twenty-first century:

For the most part, the urban renewal programs of the ‘70s were defined by demolition, a massive gentrification of traditional neighborhoods and by the lack of meaningful involvement by neighborhood residents. Ironically those programs contributed significantly to the creation of vacant lots and other blighted conditions here in Philadelphia and in other cities across the country. We have learned from the failure of those programs and will absolutely not repeat their mistakes.

Six years later, as Mayor Street ‘s term nears its end, boosters and critics have labeled NTI everything from a wild success to a disastrous failure. Did the initiative revitalize housing markets and communities, building a more prosperous and sustainable city? Or did it repeat earlier generations’ mistakes, wasting public funds and devastating working-class neighborhoods? These divergent views (and others in between) offer an opportunity to consider just how and for whom Philadelphia is being “renewed”—and just what planners across North America can learn from NTI.

The planning behind NTI is a superior example of the market models of public policy that dominate the planning profession today. The City contracted with The Reinvestment Fund (, a locally-based community development financial institution and one of the nation’s leaders, to formulate plans based on deep analysis of neighborhood housing markets. According to the plans, blighted “reclamation” neighborhoods warranted large-scale demolition and redevelopment to “create conditions for market rebirth”; “transitional” neighborhoods needed stabilization through quick response to market downturns; and the most affluent neighborhoods should simply “promote and propel the market.” In reclamation neighborhoods, where most of NTI’s money has been spent, policymakers pointed to blocks where vacant lots interspersed with just a few remaining rowhomes represented inefficient land use—a key determinant of blight.

For neoliberal critics of urban policy, who believe in the power of the private market to drive renewal, NTI has seen mixed results. In its first four years, the program completed 4,550 demolitions, almost 10,000 less than its goal, partly because city agencies underestimated the cost of demolition. While the city took on new debt, it failed to demolish more houses per year than it did before NTI. The 16,000 new market-rate and 5,000 affordable housing units built or planned in the city as of mid-2006, however, exceeded expectations. The NTI website boasts that since the year 2000, the average home in the city has appreciated 30 percent. Politicians give much of the credit to NTI. Clearly, the national real estate boom and the increasing popularity of American downtowns helped drive this growth, fueled by low interest rates and demographic trends among “empty nesters” and twenty- and thirty-somethings. Still, economists have shown that the city’s 10-year property tax abatement for new housing construction and rehab as well as NTI-funded greening of vacant lots have indeed helped increase real estate sale prices.

The general consensus among policy wonks and the media is that NTI did not accomplish as much as it should have. Though the planning behind it was good, they claim, the program’s implementation was corrupted by City Council members and other politicians who hold too much sway over development in their districts. Some point to the inability of public agencies to collaborate, effectively blocking the program’s initial goal of restructuring the city’s housing and redevelopment bureaucracies. In one of the greatest lost opportunities, NTI failed to coordinate with the School District of Philadelphia ‘s $1.8 billion capital campaign launched in 2002, leaving school development disconnected from broader neighborhood planning. Finally, many critics blame anti-eminent domain abuse activists for stalling NTI with protests and lawsuits. Of course, those activists have their own interpretation of what went wrong.

Philadelphia has become a center of the anti-eminent domain abuse movement that gained national attention with the Kelo v. New London case in 2005. Locally, the focal point was around opposition to NTI takings of occupied homes in the neighborhoods of West Kensington, Brewerytown in North Philadelphia and Mill Creek in West Philadelphia . In each case, the market logic of NTI butted heads with residents’ competing visions of what was wrong with their community—and how to fix it.

In 2002, the City condemned the 2200 block of Bodine Street in West Kensington , a narrow street amidst the junkyards and chemical plants of the American Street Empowerment Zone. NTI’s planners counted just seven homes surrounded by vacant lots on a block where there was once more than fifty taxpaying households. Residents saw something different: a grove of trees and gardens they had planted over the years while their neighborhood was ravaged by environmental racism, disinvestment and open air drug markets. The Community Leadership Institute (CLI), a resident-controlled council created through the Empowerment Zone and led by longtime activist Rosemary Cubas, opposed the taking and lost the Institute’s public funding in the process. Cubas and her colleagues pointed out that while city government ignored their neighborhood for decades, poor people had invested small amounts of money but huge amounts of time, energy and passion into improving it. While the City proved inept at fighting drugs and vacancy rates, neighbors took back their blocks from drug dealers and planted community gardens that fed a neighborhood lacking grocery stores with healthy produce. In the process, they—the people, not the city—created the conditions for gentrification, including upscale condominium development presently under way in the area. Bodine Street , however, remains undeveloped.

Rosemary Cubas spent the rest of her life—until she died of pancreatic cancer in March 2006—helping poor people in communities around the city targeted by NTI to navigate the system and fight displacement. In her view, the city’s eloquent language about “community partners,” “transparency” and “accountability” was a smokescreen—what sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls “governing by public relations.” NTI’s managers ignored even more established organizations, such as the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations and the local office of LISC, which argued for greater attention to community capacity from the outset. Even conservative critics agree that NTI has been a “black box” program lacking meaningful civic participation.

Perhaps the best outcome of NTI lies in the expansion of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) Philadelphia Green program, the nation’s leading community gardening institution. It has successfully cleaned, greened and fenced thousands of vacant lots throughout the city. Yet Cubas charged that PHS shifted its primary rationale for greening as it gained substantial NTI contracts. In the organization’s publicity of its work, what was once presented first and foremost as an effort to organize neighbors and “build community” became cast more often as an “interim strategy” for stabilizing sites in preparation for development and market rebirth. In the absence of inclusive public policies, CLI launched a block-level organizing initiative in West Kensington to formalize local leadership networks and advance agendas for grassroots revitalization. These agendas included infill housing instead of large-scale demolition, preservation of affordable housing and community gardens and access to solar panels and other “green” technologies to promote “energy justice” for low-wealth communities.

Some of NTI’s planners have admitted that the process of redevelopment in West Kensington was “problematic.” Brewerytown, however, is NTI’s “poster child.” A mix of residential and former industrial buildings adjacent to Fairmount Park , just up the road from Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River and next to the thoroughly gentrified section of Fairmount, the logic of gentrification here is undeniable. But affordable housing is also part of the plan. Suburban homebuilder John Westrum is erecting 144 market-rate townhouses with a starting price of over $250,000 for a one-bedroom unit and has acquired enough land to erect 500 more. On the next block, a former Acme warehouse is being converted to 116 market-rate and 68 affordable apartments, all with ground-floor retail. NTI has allocated $210,000 for nearby homeowners to make repairs.

To hear city leaders tell it, Brewerytown is a national model of equitable development. Yet some residents, led by the African-American Business & Residents Association, accuse the city of destabilizing the community by driving out institutions that build social capital. In particular, residents point to the taking of horse stables used by black “urban cowboys”—stables that were used to expose young people in the ghetto to amenities typically only experienced by affluent Americans. NTI officials cite the deplorable conditions of the stables, while the cowboys claim they were promised new quarters that never materialized. Al Alston, the Association’s president, filed several lawsuits against the city and continues to rail against gentrification. Racial and class tensions persist in the area, particularly in the wake of Westrum’s advertising campaign, which included a billboard of a young white man and his cat sitting on a sofa with the slogan “It’s Your Turn.” Moreover, whether a private developer warranted such heavy public subsidies at a time when other private developers are investing in similar Philadelphia neighborhoods without NTI support remains an open question.

For advocates of affordable housing, NTI is fraught with irony. In fairness, NTI’s planners at The Reinvestment Fund never viewed the program as primarily an affordable housing campaign. Rather, they recognized that Philadelphia needed to rebuild its middle-class population and tax base in order to avoid further decline. Yet the city has branded NTI as a program with ambitious affordable housing goals. NTI has taken credit for several HOPE VI projects planned and funded principally by HUD before NTI was conceived. Activists claim that the aggregate loss of subsidized housing for low-income Philadelphians through HOPE VI and the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s neglect of its scattered site units amounts to a crisis. One clear victory—claimed by activists, NTI and various politicians—is an Affordable Housing Trust Fund created in 2006, though the City Council has held up these funds as its members dispute their allocation.

On another positive note, NTI has invested close to $50 million in land assembly for capable community development corporations like the People’s Emergency Center CDC in West Philadelphia, Universal Companies in South Philadelphia and Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha in West Kensington . NTI has shared power with relatively few private developers and CDCs, however, and viewed in the context of recent City housing investment, it represents a retreat from previous administrations’ policies aimed at building broad-based planning and development capacity among community-based organizations. Furthermore, activists like Rosemary Cubas have criticized certain CDCs that have partnered with NTI for their willingness to displace their neighbors in return for city funding.

Ecologists advance yet another set of critiques, noting that NTI and the Housing Authority have built on sensitive sites without adequate stormwater management, especially in the Mill Creek section of West Philadelphia . They point out that the large tracts of land that appeared easiest to develop were vacant in the first place because the homes that once stood there were built over the city’s underground creeks and floodplains, which caused these neighborhoods to literally sink and collapse. And just as Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the Mayor’s Office even forced the Water Department to spend its emergency funds to boost NTI’s budget. Fortunately, the Water Department was able to direct this money to stormwater management projects.

So what can planners and policymakers learn from the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and its critics? Surely, no city in the United States can sustain a decent quality of life for its citizens without a substantial tax base. Reviving local real estate markets is critical to the fortunes of the many cities and towns that lost population in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet it is unreasonable—and, as Philadelphians have learned, often difficult—to advance effective public policies without involving the people most immediately affected, i.e., the residents of the “reclamation neighborhoods.”

The question of who pays for and who benefits from public policy matters. Rosemary Cubas and her colleagues claim that Philadelphia’s gentrified neighborhoods are being built on the backs of the poor, who pay rising property taxes while the affluent buyers of new condos enjoy their 10-year tax abatements. Some public policies that are creating wealth and reviving the downtown are also perpetuating the poverty of inner city communities.

Market models are often good at grasping the economic conditions of cities, but just as often they miss social and ecological forces also vital to urban prosperity and livability. From their GIS maps and windshield surveys, NTI’s planners failed to understand the dynamics of poor people’s investment in their neighborhoods. Surely we do not wish to be a generation of “Sim City planners.” So how should market analysis inform planning and redevelopment? Can we effectively employ market models to address the growing inequality of America and its cities—for poverty alleviation as well as real estate market revival?

NTI’s opponents point to the prospect of complementing market studies with deep local knowledge of the dynamics of communities and alternative measures of success, well beyond real estate values. This is by no means a new argument, as the Philadelphia Association of CDCs, the local office of LISC and others made this point at the program’s outset. The Reinvestment Fund is presently working to refine its methods of urban redevelopment consulting, incorporating data on social capital. Translating this into equitable development will require including poor people and a broad spectrum of civic organizations in the process, building civic capacity to leverage their “informal” investments in the process of revitalization. In the words of Elizabeth Segarra of the Community Leadership Institute, “We’re not opposed to progress; we just want to bepart of progress.”

Domenic Vitiello has authored books and articles about Greater Philadelphia’s economy, ecology and community development.

DOCUMENTARY SCREENING: All for the Taking: 21 st -Century Urban Renewal

This one-hour documentary, directed by George McCollough of the Media Mobilizing Project, tells the story of NTI from the perspective of the program’s biggest losers—the people whose homes have been taken through eminent domain. It takes brief forays into other recent urban renewal controversies in Philadelphia and its suburbs. The residents and activists interviewed in the film, together with the vivid images of demolition and new construction, force viewers to confront the deep social costs of eminent domain abuse and gentrification in the twenty-first century city.

All for the Taking will be screened in Philadelphia in April. A discussion with activists from the Community Leadership Institute, Media Mobilizing Project and other local groups will follow the film.

The film can be purchased from Berkeley Media (

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