Slowed by a series of legislative amendments and the ongoing litigation surrounding the soda tax, Rebuild — Mayor Jim Kenney’s $500 million plan to remake public facilities like rec centers and parks — enters the summer months on a roll, albeit, at the gradual pace of a summer stroll.
Last week, City Council passed a major piece of legislation that would authorize the city to issue the first $100 million in bonds for Rebuild, borrowing that will occur three separate times over a seven-year span. The bill also outlined how the projects will be delivered. Though the moment marked a major legislative accomplishment for the Kenney administration, the final vote of Council, 16-1, belies the fact that Rebuild remains closely hinged to a councilmanic timetable.
While certain aspects of Rebuild can move forward during Council’s summer recess, such as community engagement and writing the qualifications for nonprofit “project users” who will oversee individual Rebuild investments, the version of the bill that ultimately passed did not give the Kenney administration executive authority to select the first round of sites to receive an upgrade. That will be done in rounds, through a process that includes Council. All of that means the point when Rebuild can finally feel like a tangible reality, with shovels in the ground, will most likely come sometime in 2018.
So, if not the fanfare of initial ground-breakings, what, exactly will be happening with Rebuild this summer?
For one, planning — lots of planning. “Now that the legislation is passed, our team will spend the summer preparing to launch a first round of early action projects later this year,” said David Gould, Deputy Director of Community Engagement and Communications for Rebuild.
Currently, Rebuild is working on a shoestring budget, compared to what the bond funding would make possible. The Kenney administration has vowed to not issue the bonds until the lawsuit challenging the soda tax is resolved. (Following the Commonwealth Court’s decision to uphold the soda tax earlier this month, plaintiffs reportedly began preparing an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which could prolong the legal fight until the fall.) Out of the roughly $92 million per year the city is estimated to pull in from the soda tax, approximately $11 million will be used to pay off the debt on the bonds with the rest going toward Pre-K. In the meantime, the administration will be proceeding on Rebuild work with $8 million reserved in the capital budget and what remains of a $4.8 million start-up grant from the William Penn Foundation.
During each year of Rebuild, per the amended legislation, Council will approve an annual budget outlining which rec centers, libraries, parks, and playgrounds will be receiving funds. With Council out of session from now until mid-September, the Rebuild team can’t formally advance the site selection process.
Outside of site selection, honing the rest of the apparatus needed to carry out Rebuild will be a top priority this summer. One task will be identifying and approving the first set of project users who’ll be responsible for overseeing each facility upgrade. The administration will be putting together a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for nonprofits that can demonstrate a proven track record of quality community engagement and the capacity to manage projects in excess of $1 million. “Our plan is to release the RFQ within the next few weeks which would allow us to announce qualified nonprofits in September,” says Gould. Also on the summer agenda: engaging with neighborhood stakeholders to begin soliciting site-specific ideas and speaking with minority- and women-owned businesses who would be eligible for Rebuild contracts.
Council President Darrell Clarke, speaking to PlanPhilly after the body’s final legislative session last week, acknowledged that conversations about inaugural sites and identifying project users are well under way with district council members. “Frankly, I think I have a good sense of who will respond to the grant opportunities. I’m fortunate that I have significant nonprofit developers in my district that are more than capable of developing a 1, 2, 3, 4 million-dollar rec center,” Clarke said.
Another area to keep a close eye on this summer will be the advancement of PennAssist, a program set to begin in July that aims to provide a pipeline for young Philadelphians, particularly for graduates of the school district’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, to receive on-the-job experience with construction unions. The Kenney administration has hyped PennAssist, along with a similar initiative sponsored by Brandywine Realty Trust, as a major piece of achieving the most talked-about goal of Rebuild: diversifying the local building trades, which have been plagued by systemic racism and the exclusion of minorities for generations. The first cohort of PennAssist students will enter a boot camp this summer, followed by 12 months of job placement alongside union apprentices for all those who complete the course. In the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) [pdf] that the Kenney administration has executed with 21 prominent labor organizations (including Carpenters Regional Council, Electricians Local #98, Teamsters Local #107), the Rebuild version of PennAssist, which will be called PHL Pipeline, is described with enough vagaries that it can be molded to the successes and failures that arise this summer. “PennAssist will be a little ahead of PHL Pipeline in terms of getting up and running. We are hopeful that we can learn from the successes and areas of improvement from PennAssist, but also from our own work as the program gets underway,” says Gould.
Despite the near-unanimous approval of the Rebuild legislation in Council, activists plan to spend the summer months scrutinizing the bill, targeting ways to make the diversity goals even more solid. “We’re not going to let this issue go,” says Emmanuel Bussie, director of a local branch of the National Coalition of African-American Organizations and a vocal advocate for creating a stronger enforcement structure to ensure the diversity and inclusion goals of Rebuild are met. (The legislation includes benchmarks of at least 45 percent of the workers on Rebuild sites being minority laborers — 27 percent African-American, 14 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian — and the administration has said that it will reach those goals in year one.)
A rallying point for Bussie has become a bill introduced back in February by minority whip David Oh, the lone dissenting vote on Rebuild. The bill (no. 170094), which would apply Rebuild as well as all public-works projects of $150,000 or more, would create easier mechanisms for cancelling public contracts should the construction contractors fail to uphold their commitment to diversity goals. As Bussie sees it, project managers — including the City — have almost never cancelled a construction contract on the grounds of contractors skirting diversity goals, but Oh’s bill could normalize that process. “Members of Council have been talking about Rebuild as a catalyst or a model for other projects,” said Bussie. “Well, here’s your opportunity with David Oh’s bill.”
That said, the Rebuild legislation, along with the MOU, was repeatedly amended to add specificity to the broader set of goals that the Kenney administration has laid out for Rebuild. And Council’s 16-1 vote, after sharp criticism from critics of the administration’s plan for months, should be taken as a sign of confidence among members of Council. But there’s also a sense that the hard work has just begun.