"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 13, 2013

Lessons From the Pennrose Affair, Part III

Here are the Lessons that I have offered to community activists so far:

* Lesson #1:  It’s Not Over; It Never Is

* Lesson #2:  A Lawsuit is Worth a Thousand Petitions

And now, the final lesson:

#3:  It’s All About the Benjamins; It Always Is

     Lesson #3 is actually an old expression, long popular with historians.  Okay, so I updated the words a little; the principle hasn’t changed.  A generation ago my cultural reference might have been, “follow the money;” it means the same thing.  It always has been, is now and ever shall be the best road to understanding how and why something happened the way it did.  It also explains why Norristown municipal government wanted the Pennrose project to go through. 
     Other motives were advanced, of course.  One member of council claimed that subsidized apartments on the location were consistent with the community effort to develop an “Arts Hill,” as it would provide low-cost housing for low-income artists.  This is patent sophistry, of course, but even sophistry has a cause to support, however deceptively.
     It was actually all about the Benjamins, or, put more properly, REVENUE.  Norristown needs more, and the project would have provided some, in the form of property tax revenue at the very least.  Norristown residents are always pointing out how little services they receive for the taxes they pay (sound familiar, anyone?).  They are right (as are you in other towns), but the unpleasant fact is that EVERY municipality is in a constant struggle for more revenue.  Many face a declining tax base, but even if it isn’t, or is actually rising, the cost of municipal services rises at a greater rate.  Everyone is aware that over the past few decades municipal governments have been shedding what have been traditional services financed by the general fund, instead transforming each, one by one, into a specific service financed by a specific tax (excuse me, I meant “fee,” of course).  Municipal services from trash collection to emergency response have been subjected to this, all for the same reason: revenue.
     As I mentioned in my first Pennrose post, the fact that the project was subsidized housing led a group of residents (who are otherwise among those who clamor for greater municipal services) to oppose the project despite the revenue it would generate.  They had a very valid point (remember, I celebrated their accomplishment), but we should at least recognize that this wasn’t a one-sided issue.  I have no problem believing that Municipal Council would rather have had a more appropriate use for the site, but they were willing to accept the Pennrose offer.  Why?  Because they need revenue badly, and probably believed that this was the best offer they were going to get.  That’s a harsh judgment, but I suspect it hews all too closely to the financial facts of life today.  Recognition of the realities facing municipal governments should, I believe, serve to mitigate the moral judgments that too often follow their unpopular decisions.
     Speaking of harsh realities, let’s focus on the figure at the heart of the unpleasant choice that Council faced.  That figure is 5,000.  That is the square footage of the building’s ground floor allotted to commercial space.  It’s smaller than the project’s footprint, and the reason why the plan included apartments on the ground floor.  The variance granted for this departure from the zoning code led to the project’s demise, because it was why the lawsuit against the project was filed. 
     Pennrose was quite clear as to why they sought the variance.  Here’s how the Times Herald article phrased it:
“Pennrose alleged that it cannot construct more commercial space on the ground floor
because 5,000 square feet of commercial space is what Pennrose is comfortable with, that constructing more than 5,000 square feet of commercial space would present a leasing risk to Pennrose, and that it would effect [sic] the development budget making the development infeasible.”

     That conclusion was not the result of any corporate animosity toward Norristown, or a desire to stick the municipality with yet another “Section 8” housing project.  It derived from a dispassionate analysis of the condition of Norristown today, expressed in strictly financial terms.  It was all about the Benjamins, and how much risk they were willing to take to make some.  At no time did Pennrose even consider whether Norristown “needed” what it planned to build.  It follows that all arguments about what Norristown needs or doesn't need expressed in opposition to these projects are irrelevant; soul-satisfying to utter, yet inadmissible in the court of capitalism (that was Lesson #2).
     As difficult as it may be to admit, no individual, board or corporation involved in this affair meant to do harm.  Those who fight for their communities must never forget that, to your opposition (to borrow an expression from another milieu), “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”  The result to Norristown from this common and legal application of that belief, however, may have been as deadly as to the unfortunate individual who heard those words from someone whose intent was considerably less legal.  That makes it very personal on the receiving end.

     Therein lies the challenge.  Your opposition looks upon all this as strictly business, and the percentage of their victories should indicate how important such an attitude is, whether in the midst of the fight or during the interval between the last one and the next one (remember Lesson #1).  The most important thing is to maintain a constant—yet dispassionate—vigilance.  Every community activist knows, however, that this most important thing is also the most difficult task you face, to retain that spirit which fueled and animated the effort you take pride in.  I would add to this truth my belief that retaining the structure (i.e., communication) you developed during your effort is as important—and as difficult.  Your opposition, whose very business it is to retain both structure and spirit, expect—with considerable reason—that you will not be able to retain either.  Thus they go about their business, and if the ever-shifting arrangement of funding sources presents another opportunity for such a project, they will seize it.  It’s what they do; it’s why they exist and operate under the more-than-full protection of the law in a market economy.  After all, giving those with money the advantage is the American way.