When Councilman Frank DiCicco took office in 1996, Philadelphia was beginning to show signs of life after a long decline, though the coming renaissance was by no means assured.

Center City was littered with empty buildings, and now-trendy border neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties were still largely emblems of urban decay.

The curious new councilman asked developers why they were letting all that prime downtown real estate sit. He was told they could not make money renovating in a city with cumbersome taxes, antiquated zoning, and a long permitting process.

So, DiCicco pushed through the 1997 "conversion bill" that gave developers a 10-year tax abatement for the value of improvements if they converted their properties to ground-floor retail and upstairs residences.

Within a few years, 60 buildings had been rehabbed. The legislation's success led him to sponsor a similar tax abatement on new-home construction, which helped spark an explosion in that market.

"I'm not an economist. . . . I just asked the question," he said. "It was no magic. It was just me thinking outside the box."

During his four terms, DiCicco, a Democrat, became the development councilman. His First District now leads the city in the categories most important to its health - the most private development, the highest property values, the greatest population growth.

DiCicco, meanwhile, has shepherded the city through bruising fights over casino gambling. He was a prime backer of the widely lauded Penn/Praxis Delaware River waterfront plan, and he sponsored landmark legislation to create a new zoning code.

And now he is retiring - somewhat reluctantly.

DiCicco and his successor, Mark Squilla, to be sworn in Monday, have been making the rounds to developers and civic groups. They sense the consternation over the transition in this important district.

"Anytime you have anybody new, you have change, people are nervous and skeptical," said Squilla, former president of Whitman Council, the kind of community group that has had a decisive voice in development. "Most people, all they want is a fair shake. They want access, and they want you to be honest with them."

Squilla knows the life of the First District representative is consumed by development. He promises to sustain the momentum.

The job of a councilman is "to actually get things done," Squilla said. "We need to build. We need the city to be bigger and better."

Not the norm in '96

That attitude, DiCicco said, was not the norm in 1996. Opponents of projects tend to be the loudest; placating them is an easy impulse for a politician looking for job security.

"I'd be the most popular guy around, but nothing would get built," DiCicco said. "I think we were effective . . . in getting past some of the parochial thinking that goes on in this town. We're a major city, and we should look and feel like a major city."

Along the way, DiCicco picked up his share of critics, particularly for his embrace of outdoor advertising and billboards, and for heavy use of councilmanic prerogative - the traditional, almost absolute authority over projects in his district - to push through controversial proposals.

"There are always going to be those who are suspicious that it's being done as a quid pro quo," DiCicco said.

He noted that he also used councilmanic prerogative to frustrate and delay the Foxwoods casino plan, to the applause of many neighbors.

DiCicco also has been accused repeatedly of engaging in illegal "spot zoning" - creating special exemptions to the zoning code to accommodate various builders.

Civic groups have waged many battles against projects they saw as out of step with the zoning laws, thus changing the character of their neighborhoods. DiCicco saw his use of zoning variances as necessary to build in a city with an outdated code.

Paul Levy, president and chief executive officer of the Center City District, called DiCicco a "great mediator" between skeptical neighbors and eager builders.

DiCicco, he said, was not "100 percent pro-development," but he did not let the civics exert unreasonable veto power, either.

He noted that DiCicco was the progenitor of the new zoning code, designed to clarify the rule book for building and to simplify the permitting process.

The code, if it works as intended, would shrink politicians' influence.

"He was one of the earliest people to say, 'I don't want this power,' " Levy said.

Even with the new code, DiCicco predicts that Squilla will get the same complaints.

"He's going to have projects pop up," DiCicco said, "and he's going to have people saying, 'It's too tall, too wide, it doesn't have enough glass, it doesn't have enough brick.' "

Thomas Massaro, who ran a long orientation for the incoming freshmen class of Council members, said Squilla should be able to navigate those pitfalls with his "explorer's capacity for finding common ground."

"In South Philly politics, a lot of people think the world is flat," Massaro said, "and Mark finds a way to show them it's kind of all around and it's all connected."

Fumo protege

DiCicco entered politics through the camp of now-jailed former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, after serving as administrator of the city's Traffic Court. He was a converted Republican patronage worker with no expertise in development.

Now, Massaro says DiCicco has "a superb bundle of skills that will be missed on Council."

"While some people see him as transactional, his push to revise the zoning code and transform the waterfront was visionary," said Massaro, a former city housing director who has worked as a developer as well. "In that sense, he was underestimated."

DiCicco is leaving mostly because he enrolled in the voter-despised DROP pension program, implicitly promising to retire at the end of his term. When DiCicco signed up for DROP, he was worn out by the neighborhood wars against the casinos.

"At the time, I said it was time to go," he said. "I acted in haste."

With or without DiCicco, the First District, stretching from South Philadelphia to Port Richmond, will continue to grow. DiCicco is leaving a cupboard full of pending and hoped-for projects.

"I don't worry about Mark [Squilla] getting sleepy or bored in this job," Levy said.

DiCicco said he expected progress on the Reading Viaduct - turning the abandoned railway into an elevated park - but waterfront development has yet to soar (he blamed the economic collapse).

Major changes also are coming to Market East - the down-at-the-heels section of Market Street between City Hall and Independence Hall - thanks to a DiCicco bill that permits large digital advertising if property owners invest in renovations. It's a classic DiCicco incentive.

The Gallery mall, long lamented for presenting a blank, concrete face along Market Street, plans to flip its stores streetside as part of a major remake, DiCicco said. New tenants are moving to the area's historic buildings - including Philadelphia Media Network Inc., publisher of The Inquirer, with the help of $2.9 million in low-interest, city-backed loans.

"When I talk about the Gallery, I'm kind of upset that I'm not going to be here," he said. "It's kind of like your baby. You want to nurture it and watch it grow."

The same goes for the waterfront - development "gets my juices flowing," he said.

"I just love to see that stuff happen, to help make it happen. Not for any bragging rights, but that's where I felt we would grow in this city," he said. "Which we did. We turned a corner."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or @troyjgraham on Twitter.