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Why Philadelphia Ain’t Detroit

In a recent article in The Philadelphia InquirerFailure to Adapt, Joel Naroff cautions how Philadelphia could succumb to a collapse similar to Detroit due to the trends of population loss in both cities and the overall cost of city services, and then proposes to “clear cut” areas of the City to pave the way for profitable redevelopment. There are so many problems with this argument that I am not sure where to begin, but let’s start with the logic of the suggestion itself: “Areas should be totally depopulated and the land banked. If large tracts of land can be amassed, commercial and industrial business can be attracted.”

This just doesn’t compute. If the goal is to not be Detroit and shrink our infrastructure to match our population, then for a “clear cut” to save money we will have to acquire the property and abandon it—cutting the cost of services like transit, police, garbage collection etc. The economics of suggesting that the City buy big tracts of land, demolish everything on it, stop providing services and then sell or lease it to companies “looking for urban locations” at a presumably lower cost than market (otherwise why do it) is laughable. Redeveloping those clear cuts will then require massive investment and huge expense for the first tenant to move in, and in the interim, the super blight created by a landbanked “clear cut” unsupported by City services will hardly help grow the City’s population.

Cities across the country, including Philadelphia, have tried versions of this before and the costs are always much greater than the benefits. Mr. Naroff bemoans the “human cost,” but that misses the point entirely. The biggest asset a City has is the social capital formed by the people who live and work in its neighborhoods. Cities are desirable precisely because of the people, because of the arts, because of the parks, because of the different cultures, because of the communities that grow and evolve over time. Decades of urban history has repeatedly demonstrated that destroying neighborhoods to save them does not work.

Instead, Philadelphia needs to continue to build on its strengths. Philadelphia is not Detroit. While it is true that Philadelphia experienced a population loss for decades, Philadelphia is more than twice as densely populated as Detroit, the City’s population has increased over the past ten years, with the third largest residential downtown in the country. Most importantly, unlike Detroit’s isolated, one industry location, Philadelphia’s diverse multi-dimensional economy sits at the heart of one of the most dynamic and growing regional economies in the world. Almost 50 million people live in the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington DC today (with another 20 million projected by 2050) producing 20% of the entire U.S. GDP. And Philadelphia’s oversized infrastructure means that the City can accommodate population growth much more easily and at lower cost than other cities in the region.

While Philadelphia does face its own struggles such as the business privilege tax and the public school system, and there is a true blight problem in the City, we most certainly ain’t Detroit. Let’s focus on how to continue Philadelphia’s recent success instead of using tired arguments of how we must destroy the City to save it.

Christopher Strom is Director of Project Development at AthenianRazak and is responsible for data center client services, development financing, and project development.