Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Potholes In My Lawn

There's a Philly story getting around and on the national news.  The gist is this - a coffee shop owner and developer named Ori Feibush kept bugging the city to take better care of an adjacent abandoned lot and eventually built what looks like a patio behind his shop.  He's maintaining the lot, he put a lot of money into it.  The City said something to the effect of "you can't do that, we're suing you for trespassing etc.,"  City looks bad.

Here's my take on it, having worked for a while in affordable housing development in Philly - much of the time dealing with vacant land.

It's easy to say "This guy is trying to make things better and the city is preventing him from doing so."   It's not so simple.  The City is not just wantonly punishing do-gooders - they actually have a pretty good plan when it comes to vacant land, and under very difficult circumstances.

What the city is trying to do is take this vacant land which they probably inherited from a private citizen or company because somebody abandoned it or stopped paying taxes on it) and try to redevelop it in a way that's best for the economic vitality of the neighborhood and at a profit to the city and its stakeholders. It doesn't always work out that way, but fact of the matter is that it's not Feibush's call. He is right to demand better maintenance on it, but he can't put physical improvements on something that doesn't belong to him.

I looked up the properties in question on the Bureau of Revision and Taxes website.  The lot appears to be three properties at 20th and Annin Streets, addressed 2002-2006.  One is owned by the city (since 1976), one by a developer and one by a private indivudial.  The private entities bought them in the 2000s, likely as investments for future development.

So the City has had this land for almost 40 years.  The neighborhood is finally a desirable place to do development.  Most likely, the City and various neighborhood associations will wait for some development plans to come from the private developers and weigh in with planning commission and neighborhood association concerns during the permitting and zoning processes.  Then, the City will try to sell the land and consolidate it with whatever project might be going on.  As you can tell, they aren't in the business of rushing this sort of thing.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, the City has started to treat vacant land as more of an "asset."  They maintain it much better than before, mainly to keep from draining value from adjacent properties.  They have a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society that allows them to do so.  Anybody who has seen a mowed lot or split rail fencing along a vacant property knows of the effect of the program.  There are still big problems with land consolidation, undervaluation and red tape, but there have been vast improvements and they are considered relatively innovative nationally.

Whether the City was maintaining the 20th and Annin lot to appropriate standards, I don't know.  But what I do know is that you can't just build on stuff you don't own and then throw a fit when the owner has a problem with it.  This is the "you can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, you can't pick your friend's nose" thing.  Just because the City doesn't clean a lot to your specifications or coffee-shop-launch timetables doesn't mean you can call yourself a martyr when you pour a new sidewalk on public property and get yelled at for it.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Cover Story in Philadelphia Weekly

After a several year hiatus, I made my return this week to the Philadelphia Weekly.  Did it in style too, with a cover story about a Philadelphia activist software developer and his Shazam-like app for deciphering political advertisement provenance.

Check it out:  Fact Attack (Philadelphia Weekly)

Oh Shit, There's A Horse In The Hospital

Today I read a piece by Matthew Yglesias on, in which Yglesias asserts that countries that prioritize the export of their music and artistic culture are gaining on the US.  Admittedly, it's kind of off-the-cuff and jokey, but nonetheless, an interesting topic to discuss (though, admittedly, it's difficult to argue with somebody who makes half his points in jest and half in seriousness).  He specifically cites Sweden and Canada, and mentions their active efforts to promote their music internally and abroad through subsidy, support, and health care.  He makes no real analysis of changes in international market share over time, so I can't really treat it as a comparative argument per se.

Here's an excerpt:

I assume things like true single-payer universal health care systems are good for the music sector. Here in the US, if you decide to work part-time at a proper job in order to have more time to devote to artistic pursuits then not only do you have to get by on a low income (which happens everywhere) you're going to find it extremely difficult to get proper health insurance. That's simply a huge risk to be taking for your life, since if you happen to develop a serious illness you'll then be unable to get coverage for it in the future even if you abandon your aspirations in favor of a more traditional career. A band in Canada or Sweden doesn't have that problem.

My problem is not with a suggestion that there is value in subsidizing potential cultural ambassadorship as a sort of economic vanguard into international markets, I just don't really see anything beyond a conjecture of its value.  It doesn't really speak to the larger idea of protectionism either.  However, the broader issue of healthcare-as-competitive-advantage is always worth examining.

As a professional musician/artist, I sure wish I could get affordable healthcare.  Before I was married and invited into the arbitrary club of entitled persons (by the sexually transmitted hetero method), my healthcare was basically a bankruptcy protection plan.  I used it way less than I should have because I had to come out of pocket - I got some cavities, I overpaid for basic care because I did not have group-negotiated rates.  My equivalents in Canada probably didn't have these problems.

Europe has been subsidizing musicans and artists for years but my gut tells me that the overall balance of cultural export from the US remains the same. That is to say, there is still a huge trade imbalance in our favor. Look at the film industry - just because we have thousands of actors working in LA as waiters doesn't mean we aren't making the vast majority of the world's blockbuster hits.

I don't think people were chalking up the 1960s British invasion to the NHS. You can argue that the broad class of under and uninsured people in the US are an economic drain on our healthcare system.  You can argue that there is a disincentive to behave entrepreneurially if healthcare is prohibitively expensive as an individual.  You can frame it in humanistic terms, e.g. "it's not nice to let artists and other unconventionally employed people suffer because they works solo."  But you can't frame in terms of international macro-economics unless you have data.  That said, I'm kind of interested to hear somebody opine on whether Drake put Cappadonna out of work.