Philadelphia Mayor Touts Home-Building Program, But Critics Question Progress in War on Blight

Thu February 27, 2003 - National Edition

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Mayor John F. Street touted his $295-million anti-blight program, saying plans are in the works to build at least 2,100 new homes and apartments on land now largely abandoned.

But critics, including Sam Katz, the Republican challenging Street’s re-election later this year, claimed the program was barely off the drawing boards after its first year.

Street said recently that his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative has aided seven major building projects, including privately-funded construction of hundreds of townhouses on abandoned industrial land and at the former U.S. Navy base in South Philadelphia.

He said the city also has begun constructing 1,800 homes and apartments to replace two deteriorating public housing projects.

Street’s remarks drew cheers from approximately 400 backers and housing activists gathered at a North Philadelphia church.

But Katz, who narrowly lost to Street in the 1999 mayoral race, said the Democrat has delivered “almost nothing” in the way of knocking down blighted neighborhoods or building new housing.

But in the year since Street won approval for his plan to demolish 14,000 abandoned buildings and turn the cleared lots over to private developers, only a handful of crumbling brick row houses and factories have been torn down.

Thousands of demolitions that were supposed to begin in July have been repeatedly delayed.

“I think the idea of transforming neighborhoods is a great thing, I just don’t think that we are close to under way here,” Katz said.

He said several of the housing projects cited as accomplishments by Street have been planned for years, and that others exist now only as proposals, with no construction schedule.

Street’s secretary of housing and neighborhood preservation, Kevin Hanna, acknowledged that fewer buildings have come down than people expected, but said city officials have spent the first year of the program in careful planning.

“We aren’t just going to knock stuff down and hope something happens,” Hanna said.

Street said that, among other projects, the administration is trying to recruit developers to build 151 homes on land the city would clear in a blighted North Philadelphia neighborhood. It is also seeking development bids on 130 acres currently occupied by a vacant mental hospital, and 35 acres in the Logan section that were abandoned when homes built on ash fill sank into the ground in the 1990s.