Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What's Penn's Landing Worth to You?

Philadelphia has spent 30 years trying to figure out how to use the Penn's Landing waterfront. But it was members of the Street Administration who hit on the idea of turning it into a fountain for campaign contributions. Now that Mayor Street's pal and former law partner Leonard Ross has pleaded guilty to trying to extort campaign donations from the applicants seeking the development rights to Penn's Landing, I thought it would be fun to look back on the denials (ie. lies) issued when the accusations were first made in 2003.

Just to set the scene a bit: In December 2002 - while Mayor Street was gearing up his reelection campaign - he invited developers to submit ideas for transforming Philadelphia's forlorn central waterfront. Nine developers responded. And so did the public. The problem of what to do with Penn's Landings sparked one of the most engaged civic conversations in Philadelphia history. Little did the particpants know that Len Ross was settling things behind closed doors. "I wanna make sure all these other guys [developer candidates] . . . are gonna come to a few of our fund-raisers . . . " Ross explained to Street's top fundraiser, Ronald White, in a conversation the FBI happened to be taping on April 1, 2003.

It was quite obvious even to casual observes that the Street Administration was drawing out the developer selection that spring in an effort to squeeze a few more campaign checks out of the applicants. Here's how mayoral spokesman Frank Keel responded to that suggestion in a May 9, 2003 Changing Skyline column:
"The assertion that this is tied into a desire to ratchet up contributions is politically motivated nonsense. "

In a May 20, 2003 letter to the editor, former Commerce Director James J. Cuorato also took umbrage:
"The city's process is being driven solely by the goal of selecting the best development plan and development team for Penn's Landing. Selection of a plan and developer will be determined solely on the merits of the proposals and the development teams who participate. Saffron's suggestion to the contrary is simply not true, and discounts the efforts of the developers who will put in countless hours of hard work and planning to provide their visions. "

After the longest developer search in planning history - 22 months - Mayor Street announced in Oct. 2004 (after he had been re-elected in a landslide and the pay-to-play probe was proceeding apace) that the proposals of the two finalists were just too expensive. But he promised then that the city would turn the crumbling asphalt lot on the waterfront into a green park. Being a bit tone-deaf to irony, the mayor declared:
"Waterfronts are our greatest resource."

As a resource for what? Shakedowns?

One footnote: In 1986, City Councilman Leland Beloff went to jail for demanding that developer Williard Rouse pay $1 million for the priviledge of developing Penn's Landing. In 2003, Len Ross upped the price to $2 million. The only thing that has changed at Penn's Landing is the going rate of the bribes.

Oh, yeah. For the record, Street himself has not been implicated in any wrongdoing. Federal investigators repeated this week that they have no plans to bring charges against the mayor.

But don't expect development at Penn's Landing any time soon.


Blogger Chris said...

Shouldn't he resign if so many of his minions have been put up on charges?

11:08 PM  

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