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Con: Council members should direct land use

By Darrell L. Clarke

I have the privilege to represent approximately 150,000 residents of Philadelphia in the Fifth Councilmanic District. At a very personal level, I know my district. I know its strengths and its challenges; its community groups and their leaders; and the alliances — and tensions — that sometime exist between neighbors. I have a clear sense of the development needs within my district.

And I am not different from the nine other district councilmembers with whom I serve. We are dedicated to understanding the specific communities we represent as thoroughly as possible.

So when new opportunities arise — when a developer proposes a new project that requires Council's approval — we understandably look to the Council member who represents the affected district to evaluate the project.

That is the essence of what some refer to as the councilmanic prerogative: When presented with a proposal affecting a specific councilmanic district, we defer to the Council member who best understands its impact. We offer our opinions and our suggestions, but we will vote on the proposal only after the district Council member has exhaustively evaluated it in a transparent process that includes public hearings and meetings with community advocates.

The prerogative is informal. It is not required by our Home Rule Charter or Council's rules. It exists only because it works. And in return for the prerogative, Council expects the district Council member to negotiate on Council's and the city's behalf to improve the project, often dramatically.

Supporters of the project understand that without the Council member's support, the project could stall. This brings them to the table. Compromises are reached; legitimate neighborhood concerns are resolved; flawed projects ripen into worthwhile ones; and good projects become superior ones.

Here are just two examples in the Fifth Councilmanic District:

Last year, Temple University sought legislation from Council that would permit it to construct Gateway South, a new student residence hall and retail space at Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. To ensure that the project would benefit both the university and the neighboring community, Council sought and obtained from Temple impressive commitments to pursue local and minority-owned businesses as tenants in the retail space; to award 250 need-based scholarships over a 10-year period to individuals residing in any of four adjacent zip code areas; to emphasize recruiting from the university area when filling the approximately 110 permanent new jobs to be created; to achieve during construction substantial levels of participation by minority-, women-, and disabled-owned businesses; and to develop strategies to reduce the need for parking on residential streets.

Before Council approved the historic agreement to lease land on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the renowned Barnes collection, we asked the Barnes Foundation to significantly strengthen its proposed economic opportunity plan. The result was an exceptionally aggressive commitment to provide contracting opportunities during construction for minority-, women-, and disabled-owned businesses, along with impressive employment goals for the 52 new full-time jobs expected to be created. Moreover, the foundation committed to ensuring that "persons of all means have affordable access" to the galleries.

Critics of the councilmanic prerogative characterize it as giving individual Council members the power to say "no" to a project. But really, as these examples attest, it is also the power to say "yes" — yes to important modifications that provide lasting, tangible benefits to our communities. Exercised judiciously, the councilmanic prerogative is a win-win proposition for all concerned.

Councilman Darrell L. Clarke represents the Fifth District and is the Democratic majority whip.