The Voice of the People in Philadelphia

by | Mar 10, 2003

The Penn’s Landing redevelopment issue in Philadelphia raises an interesting and concrete example of the relationship between government and public property development and improvement. We would all like to see something beautiful and valuable happen on the waterfront but this does not justify taxation as a means to make it possible. The Philadelphia Inquirer published […]

The Penn’s Landing redevelopment issue in Philadelphia raises an interesting and concrete example of the relationship between government and public property development and improvement. We would all like to see something beautiful and valuable happen on the waterfront but this does not justify taxation as a means to make it possible.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial February 17th, 2003 titled “A Principled Strategy” regarding the development of Penn’s Landing. “For three decades, experts have struggled to solve the puzzle of Penn’s Landing. But their proposed solutions have never really pleased the public or satisfied the marketplace.” It goes on to say, “Penn’s Landing should not be a ‘chain store’ place, but a Philadelphia place,” and “it should be a regional attraction as well as a local park,” but “commercial uses should not overwhelm or preclude public uses.”

“Who is to say that a massive retail complex will be the best possible use of this former civic space?” concretizes the issue perfectly. Well, who is to say? The taxpayers will be paying for it but which individual taxpayers will determine what happens with the space? Some want to make it an urban oasis with a new amphitheater, lots of open green space for picnics and a state-of-the-art playground or skate park for teens. Given the choice, I wouldn’t contribute a single cent to it. I have college bills and rent to pay.

Penn’s Landing was on the agenda of a Philadelphia civic group called “Reasons to Stay” which meets monthly to discus and pressure City Council to give Philadelphia citizens a “reason to stay.” Like many other special interest groups, however, they do not oppose the City Council using the money of other citizens to finance all the wild and spectacular dreams they have, including those which involve Penn’s Landing. This may ultimately give them a reason to stay, but what about all the other citizens of Philadelphia who have no interest in developing Penn’s Landing?

Government misappropriation of tax monies, as politicians look for projects whose sponsorship will net them most votes, is precisely the reason why development in Philadelphia isn’t as responsive to the desires of the population. Asking government to give one a “reason to stay” by becoming more involved in development is analogous to asking for more poison as an antidote to poison.

Private developers pursuing the profit motive develop the areas that they perceive as most profiting from the development. If they misjudge, it costs them money – costs which cannot be swept under a rug. If the government develops an area which ends up being unused, people as a rule don’t recognize that this development was done at the expense of some more valuable development elsewhere. They tend to see government works out of context, and to remember the successes but not the failures. This gives a large incentive for politicians to develop because if their projects succeed, they benefit from the public’s perception, while the public is virtually indifferent about it if the project fails or is wasteful.

Tax money is taken by force – all government programs and services are funded by compulsory extortion. If one were so confident that the development of Penn’s Landing is right, one should be able to convince people of it, and one wouldn’t need to force others to fund it since they would do it of their own accord. In fact, the only reason you could possibly have for forcing people to do something is because you don’t think you could convince them to do it.

City Council and special interest groups believe government should take positive action to repair Philadelphia’s economy but it is government action in the first place that has crippled it. Every infusion of taxpayer-expropriated money into the economy causes market imbalances and necessarily takes money away from profitable investments (which money naturally flows to) and puts it into non-profitable ventures. When one spends another’s money, one tends to spend it less wisely.

For example, when plans were introduced to fund a new stadium for the Eagles in 2000, Citypaper reported that the City Council not only offered to pay for it, but if it failed, it would give the Eagles 30 years to repay the $23 million mistake it would have costed taxpayers. Imagine someone accepting payment to do a plumbing job for you under the condition that if it breaks he will repay you the money over 30 years. Only the government can take such ridiculous risks and only through extortion can it afford to.

This is why, as a rule, private developers make better decisions about which areas to develop and how. If they lose money, they can’t afford to sweep the loss under the rug. Government bureaucrats frequently take expensive risks and waste resources that would otherwise have been spent on more rational development by the private sector.

A good example of this idea working in practice is Bryant Park on 47th and 50th in New York City. In the 1970’s the city park suffered severe decline in conditions including rampant crime, graffiti, homelessness and unsightly trash. The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation signed a 15-year agreement with the city in 1988 and reopened the park in 1991 with a budget six times the level under prior city management. It is the largest effort in the nation to apply private management backed by private funding to a public park and has been a huge success. It has an enormous lawn, a beautiful fountain, little shops and free folding chairs you can take with you anywhere onto the field which is guarded day and night by an armed security force. I go there every time I have off from school.

The best place for our money is in our pockets. If we, as individuals, misappropriate our own money we, as individuals, will be harmed. Should the city misappropriate the public treasure into failed endeavors, everyone will be harmed. Residents should contact their representatives and demand on economic and moral grounds that the city has no business looting from everyone to improve their condition. We are more than qualified to decide such things for ourselves.

It may be that it is in everyone’s best interest to have Penn’s Landing used properly. I believe taxpayer money should be used properly in order to achieve this and it is best achieved when it is left to the taxpayer, and not the City Council or some civic group to decide where it should go.

Leonardo F. Urbano is an electrical engineering student at Drexel University.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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