Mayoral candidates always talk about quality-of-life issues. But when Jim Kenney ran for mayor four years ago, he had extra reason to focus on those bread-and-butter neighborhood issues. Philadelphia was in the throes of an unprecedented building boom, and the city was reeling from the stress.
Regaining control of the city’s streets became one of Candidate Kenney’s signature crusades during the 2015 campaign. He railed against contractors who monopolized the sidewalks with their building equipment, forcing pedestrians to wade into oncoming traffic. He pledged to reverse years of underfunding at the Streets Department and tackle the city’s Kabul-size collection of potholes. And once those streets were properly paved, he promised to install 30 miles of protected bike lanes and implement Vision Zero protocols to make the streets safer for everyone.
His concerns went beyond basic safety. He also reprimanded developers who were destroying Philadelphia’s precious historic fabric. And he vowed to crack down on midnight dumpers who were defiling neighborhoods like Germantown and Kensington with heaps of construction debris.
So how well has Mayor Kenney lived up to the promises made by Candidate Kenney?
I checked in with community leaders in a variety of Philadelphia neighborhoods and combed through city statistics to assess Kenney’s accomplishments and failings on five issues that are all the outgrowth of the construction boom: providing safe passage at construction sites, street paving, protected bike lanes, historic preservation, and illegal dumping. These aren’t the big, intractable, structural challenges we hear so much about, like poverty, crime, and schools.
But they are issues that color our daily experience of city life and impact the viability of struggling middle neighborhoods. And unlike some other problems the city faces, they are actually solvable with enough money and commitment. While no mayor can be expected to eradicate poverty in just four years, an effective manager should be able to fix potholes and keep the city clean.
Nothing made Kenney more animated as a councilman than seeing the sidewalks blocked by construction projects. In 2008, he even sponsored City Council legislation that would have required dedicated pedestrian walkways — cattle chutes — at every building site. Although the final bill was watered down before it was passed, Kenney continued to push for better enforcement.
As mayor, Kenney scored a big victory when the Gallery ringed its three-block-long building with pedestrian walkways during its long renovation. The city now requires contractors to apply — and pay a fee — for sidewalk closures. It routinely fines those who fail to comply, although the amount is a mere $75 a day. Thanks to help from the Bicycle Coalition’s work, the city now has an online system for reporting blocked sidewalks.
But neighborhood activists say sidewalk closures remain a big safety issue. Fishtown has endured months of blocked sidewalks on Frankford Avenue, including a period when dueling apartment projects closed sidewalks on both sides of the street. Venise Whitaker, a community activist who started a Facebook group called the Riverwards L&I Coalition, complains the $75 fines are meaningless. As soon as L&I inspectors leave, she says, contractors block the sidewalks again.
“On this issue, Councilman Kenney would be appalled with Mayor Kenney,” says Andrew Stober, a former Streets Department official who now works for the University City District. “The real cure,” argues Bicycle Coalition director Sarah Clark Stuart, “is getting more inspectors in the right-of-way unit.”
Because the city drastically cut back on street paving during the Street and Nutter administrations, Kenney inherited a huge maintenance backlog — nearly a thousand miles, according to a Bicycle Coalition estimate. The deferred maintenance occurred at a time when construction and utility work was wreaking fresh havoc on Philadelphia streets. Kenney has dramatically increased the Streets Department paving budget, enabling it to add two more paving crews. This year the city met its goal of paving 95 miles of streets, up more than 200 percent from the last years of Nutter’s term. Philadelphia still needs to pave 131 miles annually to stay even, but the number of potholes being reported to 311 has fallen by half, according to the Streets Department’s Pat O’Donnell. Kenney is also creating a Vision Zero maintenance crew to refresh bike lanes, crosswalks, and other safety features.
With all that, Philadelphia’s streets still look like they’ve been through a couple of wars. The 2000 block of Spruce has more potholes and patches at this point than actual street surface. The city hasn’t paved Pine or Spruce Streets — two of Center City’s most important crosstown streets — since 2009, and the celebrated bike lanes there have virtually disappeared as a result. Torresdale Avenue, which connects a string of neighborhoods in the Northeast, requires urgent repairs, according to the city’s maintenance ranking system. The Streets Department says this is the year that the worst of Center City’s streets will finally be paved. It’s hard to imagine going through another winter without repairs.