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Editorial | A Look at Mayor Street's Legacy

Lots of gain, more pain

Aside from Michael Nutter's credentials, there's another reason people are anxious for him to become mayor. He isn't John Street.

Street is leaving the mayor's office after eight maddening years in charge. Philadelphia has made great strides on his watch, such as revitalizing forgotten pockets of the city. But in many other aspects of leadership, Street has been terrible.

The number of shootings and murders soared in Philadelphia while the mayor and his police commissioner mostly fiddled. (Anyone remember the mayor's comically ineffective plea on live TV for city youth to "lay down your weapons"?)

Philadelphia gained residents in Center City but bled population overall. Taxes were reduced, but the local tax burden remained one of the highest in the nation. And a federal probe of the mayor's inner circle revealed ethical rot in Street's administration.

The mayor was inept or uninterested in confronting such problems. He was too often guided by stubbornness or vindictiveness. Street never embraced his bully pulpit. He was a dreadful communicator and a worse cheerleader.

Street's credibility ended on Oct. 7, 2003. That's the day an FBI listening device was discovered in the mayor's office. The FBI planted the bug because investigators suspected Street was taking campaign contributions in exchange for city contracts.

Street wasn't charged, but his campaign guru, Ron White, was revealed to be a pay-to-play magnet. City Treasurer Corey Kemp was convicted of taking bribes to steer city contracts to White and his friends.

The details of insider greed and wasted tax money reinforced the perception that city government was being run for the benefit of politicians' friends and supporters - not for residents. It hobbled Street's second term, even as he resisted ethics reforms.

The financial dealings of Street's brother at the airport also hurt the city's image. Milton Street obtained a $30,000-a-month consulting contract for maintenance services. He was later indicted for allegedly failing to report $2 million in income. The mayor shrugged.

Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative spent about $300 million to demolish dilapidated buildings, trying to lure developers. But it delivered fewer demolitions, at greater cost, than Street first promised. Street's vision was admirable, but the impact was diluted.

Give Street credit for delivering on his pledge to tow more abandoned cars off the street. His "Operation Safe Streets" to eradicate open-air drug markets was also effective, but couldn't be sustained without costly police overtime.

Street worked tirelessly to increase after-school programs for children. And his finest achievement just might have been fending off the state's Edison-led takeover plan for the school district, which would have been a disaster.

His vision for a wireless network in Philadelphia was groundbreaking. Its implementation is far from complete, but it hasn't cost the city.

The mayor also was heavily involved in negotiating new stadium deals with the Eagles and Phillies. He has presided over the start of a $700 million expansion of the Convention Center. Sections of North Philly and West Philly are undergoing a heartening transformation. The Navy Yard is a bustling commercial success. Plans for redevelopment of the waterfront along Penn's Landing are promising, though a long way from being fulfilled. Some of the city's new jewels, such as the Kimmel Center, the National Constitution Center and the Cira Centre, opened during Street's tenure.

What Philadelphia now needs, though, is a leader who can build upon such progress without getting mired in scandal, bad judgment and pay-to-play politics.

Fair or not, many people's lasting image of Street will be of him camped out in line to buy a new iPhone while the city was in the midst of one more crime crisis. It became a metaphor for the mayor's tenure: When Street was visible at all, he too often served as his own distraction.