In the last year, Philadelphia has seen the first significant resistance to the formation of Neighborhood Improvement Districts in its 22 years of implementing them. In the midst of an eminent domain controversy in the North Philly neighborhood near Temple University, heated public hearings and petitions have come to characterize a process that was supposed to mean consensus and improvement, according to an article in City Paper, a local alt-weekly.
Pennsylvania law defines a “Neighborhood Improvement District” as “a limited geographic area within a municipality, in which a special assessment is levied on all designated property…for the special purpose of promoting the economic and general welfare of the area and the municipality.” NIDs have, perhaps because of this broad definition, formed from a variety of beginnings.
The University City District, for example, was characterized by its overlapping universities and campus life long before the borders were drawn. Meanwhile other NIDs, such as the South Street District and East Passyunk Avenue District, have long histories as bustling main streets. Existent perceptions of place helped define each of these districts.
The debate in North Philly, however, is over the proposed North Central Neighborhood Improvement District (NCNID), which encompasses an area that is harder to break-down into clear, cohesive parts. Outside of the Temple University campus — with its red-flagged street lights and police pavilions — much of the area seems set apart or wedged between construction sites.
According to Nick Pizzola of The Temple Area Property Associations, an NID is the best option to help clean up the area and fund increased security measures to deal with the ongoing tensions between longtime neighborhood residents and an ever-revolving crop of students. This is City Council President Darrell Clarke’s stated reason for proposing the NID as well. In this case, the impetus was a specific rift between residents and a large institution, rather than an across-the-board economic downturn. What soured many to the idea, though, is the fact that the city, Temple University and student housing developers ironed out plans for an NID largely without the public’s knowledge, fueling speculation that the interested parties don’t care whether residents wind up displaced from the neighborhood as a result.
Whether an NID could ever work among such a neighborhood dynamic remains to be seen, but according to Karen Fegely — director of neighborhood economic development for the city’s Department of Commerce — it is generally better to “create a sense of place first, and utilize a NID afterward.”
Penn Park in the University City District, a well-defined NID. Credit: UCD
Since the NCNID was proposed, an impassioned public outcry has led to an indefinite hold on the bill that would create it. “There is a sense that that it was a backroom deal,” said Pizzola, reflecting on the history of conflict between Temple and longtime residents as the university transitioned from a commuter-based school to retaining more students on and off-campus.
The NCNID’s difficulty with public perception might have been avoided, according to Fegely. “It comes down to communication,” she said. Currently, Fegely and the Commerce Department are developing a “how-to guide” to help future attempts at forming NIDs. The guide outlines a chronology of phases, beginning with a feasibility phase, then planning and outreach, and finishing with the legislative phase.
“There’s been general outlines and consultants versed in the process, but no real rulebook,” said Fegely.
The guide also contains a checklist of conditions that an area should have before considering forming an NID, including such provisions that “property owners have a track record of working together.”
In the wake of the first NID in Philadelphia to be rejected by the public — the Callowhill Reading Viaduct Improvement District — and now the resistance to the NCNID, there is a new sense that NIDs need to be better understood by the public and those proposing them. Although the guide has been in the works for the last six months, Fegely said that “recent struggles of proposed NIDs highlight the need for there to be guidance and instructions around the process.”
With NIDs becoming an increasingly tempting option — especially as cash-strapped municipal services leave communities fending for themselves — instruction could be crucial in whether districts take on the task of forming one in the first place.