I RECENTLY caught up with John
Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, as he was pounding the pavement in Francisville. Norquist was on the hunt for local venues to set up mini-neighborhood planning sessions during CNU's 15th annual international conference here, May 17 to 20.
The conference is expected to draw 1,800 to 2,000 planners, architects, developers and government officials. More than 100 of these New Urbanist devotees will spend an entire day, May 16, brainstorming about how to make our tiny Francisville a better place to live, work and play.
Norquist, striding past the devastation caused by four decades of disinvestment that has only recently begun to reverse itself, observed that community fears of gentrification and displacement are misplaced.
"I don't think gentrification is a really big threat to Philadelphia at this point. There is so much housing available. What you have here is a shortage of people," Norquist said.
Francisville is the area sandwiched between Fairmount and Girard avenues and Corinthian and Broad streets. The neighborhood of about 5,000 people - about half what it was 40 years ago - suffers from a heavy concentration of vacant lots and ramshackle buildings.
Although small, Francisville is home to four commercial corridors, which run along Broad Street and Ridge, Fairmount and Girard avenues. All were decimated by the 1960s race riots from which many fire- and vandal-ravaged businesses never recovered.
But things are looking up. The real-
estate boom, coupled with the city's focus on neighborhood cleanup, has brought new residents to Francisville in the last 10 years. The neighborhood has a chance of becoming the city's next hot spot, which makes it an ideal testing ground for new urbanism ideals.
The CNU volunteers will share the results of their brainstorming with residents that evening at a community barbecue to be held at the Francisville Playground on the 1700 block of Francis Street.
Penny Giles, president of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp., said the CNU workshops will help finalize the resident-driven development plan already in the works. The plan due out later this year is being funded by a $100,000 grant from the Wachovia Regional Foundation.
"We will get some information from other sources that perhaps will add value to what we already have," Giles said.
There also is the added value of exposure to architects and planners from all over the world.
"We've been working really, really hard to get Francisville on the map and to bring as much recognition to the area as possible," she said. "We are marketing the community not just to local residents, but also nationwide."
Norquist also took a jog along the Delaware riverfront - this time I did not tag along - to examine the area that is being scrutinized for redevelopment. After his jog, Norquist gave a rather colorful "Amen" to a recommendation that I-95 be buried or capped as it passes through Center City.
"When they put I-95 there, it was like putting a turd in the punch bowl," Norquist said. "They spent a lot of money and made Philadelphia less valuable as a result. It was really stupid!"
The idea of I-95's burial was floated by the waterfront task force led by Penn Praxis, the clinical consulting arm of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design.
For more information on New Urbanism and the upcoming conference, go to http://cnu.org.
If you close on a mortgage this year that includes private mortgage insurance, the premium may be deductible on your 2007 federal income tax.
Bet you didn't know that. My accountant didn't, and he's pretty sharp.
The fact that Congress last year decided to give this short-lived tax break to some homebuyers is not widely known. The PMI deduction was buried in a larger tax bill approved by the 109th Congress in its final hours. Hundreds of thousands of homeowners could save a total of $91 million when they file their tax returns in 2008 - but only if they know about it.
And who knows? I certainly didn't until I stumbled across a mention of it in a newsletter published by the American Homeowners Grassroots Alliance.
But Congress limited the tax break to this one year (2007) for taxpayers earning $100,000 or less.
So what is PMI? Typically mortgage borrowers who put down less than 20 percent - about one in five - must purchase private mortgage insurance to protect the lender against default. The premium can add $100 or more a month to the mortgage payment.
Mortgage-industry lobbyists estimate that eligible borrowers will save an average of $300 to $350 a year with the PMI deduction.
For more facts on the PMI
deduction go to www.micanews. com. *