A growing rift between City Council and the Redevelopment Authority (RDA) was in full view Monday as council members grilled the agency's director, Terry Gillen, about stalled projects and new policies for managing vacant land.
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of the committee on housing, neighborhood development and the homeless, said she called the hearing out of frustration.
Blackwell criticized the RDA for disposing of properties to developers without first seeking input and support from members of City Council. Under state law, every deal by the RDA has to be approved by City Council.
And she took issue with the agency's attempts to take back land in two high-profile projects: an expansion of the University City Science Center in West Philadelphia, and a proposed temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near Logan Square.
"Why fight projects we support?" Blackwell asked Gillen.
In the Mormon temple project, the developer - Stephen Klein - defaulted on a redevelopment agreement to revive a two-acre site on Vine Street between 17th and 18th Streets. After the RDA notified him of the default in 2008, Klein nevertheless agreed to sell the property to the Mormon church in 2009. The RDA then sued Klein to retake the land, casting a "cloud" over the deal, the developer said.
Because of litigation, Gillen could not comment on the two cases. But before the hearing, she said the RDA has an obligation to make sure developers do what they say they are going to do.
The RDA has the power to retake property if developers do not build on time. Under the terms of a 1986 redevelopment agreement, Klein was supposed to finish his project by 1991.
"We're doing our job," Gillen said.
The Partnership Community Development Corp. in West Philadelphia also was caught up in the crackdown. Since 2008, the RDA has sent out more than 50 default notices - half of which led to new agreements with developers to finish projects, Gillen said.
Steven Williams, the group's executive director, testified that the RDA notified him in August 2008 that the CDC was not living up to its 2004 agreement to develop four units of affordable housing in the 4500 block of Sansom Street. He said he submitted updated plans, including new details on financing.
But the project was denied an extension in October 2009.
Gillen told council if the project was still for affordable housing, the RDA would reconsider granting an extension.
After testifying, Williams said he was "surprised" by the RDA's reconsideration. "I'm hoping we'll be able to move forward," he said.
Gillen testified that the Nutter administration has made it a priority to reform the city's "broken" system for handling vacant property.
One innovation, she said, has been to list all the properties in the RDA inventory. That has led to developers directly contacting the agency about deals - and sometimes bypassing the City Council member in whose district the property is located.
Local legislators - in the case of Philadelphia, City Council members - have a high degree of involvement in land deals and don't like being left out of the loop.
Gillen testified that some developers have complained that having to go to City Council "slowed things down."
Blackwell shot back, "We do not slow the process down. It's you who is slowing us down."
"We should be partners," added Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, whose 8th district includes Germantown. "We're not there to hold up any development.