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Nora Lichtash’s career in development began in the mid-80s when she started working at a women’s program in North Philly, east of Broad Street.
“People today might call it West Fishtown,” she said, “or North Northern Liberties or East Kensington.” (They might, actually).
Lichtash, executive director for Women’s Community Revitalization Project, is kidding — but only a little bit. She questions how these areas gentrified so quickly and without enough concern for longtime working-class and low-income residents. Part of that, she argues, could be from a lack of diversity in the planning and development fields in Philadelphia.
The American Planning Association estimates the urban planning field is 58 percent male nationally. Major developers are almost always white and male, and the same goes for architects. And, as noted in a recent Curbed article titled “Mansplaining the City” that looked at this subject nationwide, women are often the most affected by neighborhood changes: About 75 percent of public housing households are led by women.
Lichtash’s work in the ’80s was for the Lutheran Settlement House in Fishtown. She taught GED and ESL programs, mostly for women looking for a lifeline and for many who had escaped domestic abuse. Women’s Community Revitalization Project grew out of a $50 million settlement that stemmed from a challenge against banks through the Community Reinvestment Act. According to WCRP’s website, it’s still the lone women-led community development corporation in the city.
What Philly is doing right
Lichtash said Philadelphia would be different if more women were involved in the development and planning fields, giving examples such as fewer tax breaks for developers, and greater emphasis on saving neighborhood institutions and vulnerable residents in gentrifying areas. She said WCRP warned many parties in the early 2000s about residents who feared they’d be forced out of their homes as property values and real estate prices began climbing outside of Center City, and few took them seriously.
“If we as women were involved, this neighborhood of eastern North Philadelphia — or whatever people are calling it — would not be pushing so many folks out,” Lichtash said. “We’d welcome new residents. We’d welcome them, but there would not have to be people leaving the neighborhood in droves.”
[pullquote content=”People don’t think we have the ability to understand economic conditions and feasibility and what could happen in the neighborhood.” align=”right” credit=”Nora Lichtasch, executive director for Women’s Community Revitalization Project” /]
In at least one way, Philadelphia is progressive in gender representation in development-related fields. City government has often had a woman in charge of the highest planning position in city government. In Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, Anne Fadullon is the director of planning and development. Her title is new, but previous mayors like John Street and Ed Rendell appointed women to similar positions, including Barbara Kaplan, Maxine Griffith and Janice Woodcock.
“Women have been in charge,” said Inga Saffron, the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic. “But I think in Philadelphia and perhaps other cities, all developers are men. Every once in a while some woman pops up. Developers are mostly white men and they have a lot of influence — in some ways more influence than the planners do.”
As director of planning and development, Fadullon has mostly been considered a responsible middle between the need for development and for affordable housing, the latter of which Philadelphia is experiencing a shortage.
“Ultimately we’re planning for our residents,” Fadullon said. “And if our residents look a certain way and have a certain income level we need to have those voices at the table and have those folks be represented.”
That said, developers in this city are unquestionably mostly male, particularly the big names like Carl Dranoff, Bart Blatstein, Roland Kassis, David Perlman and the people behind Toll Brothers. Women might be involved on the planning side, but for the most part they aren’t buying up and changing major portions of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Saffron explained that schism through what she admits are “gross generalizations.”
“Women like to make people comfortable,” Saffron said, “and I think that’s why women gravitate to planning because a lot of urban planning is about making our city and our public spaces and our suburbs more comfortable for everyone.”
As for developers: “There’s definitely a developer personality, which comes out in the most extreme form in the president of our country. A lot of developers have to battle their way through permitting and such, and it turns them into warriors. In order to survive that you have to believe you’re 100 percent right….You sort of kickbox your way through the whole thing until someone will stop you.”
‘I would love to see more women in the field’
Lichtash said the bank didn’t trust WCRP during its first housing project and denied them a loan. She blames it on WCRP being too realistic with the risk the project entailed and how much money they currently had for it.
“People don’t take us seriously,” Lichtash said, “and they don’t think we have the ability to understand economic conditions and feasibility and what could happen in the neighborhood.”
Leading private developers aren’t completely male in Philadelphia, though. Lindsey Scannapieco’s urban design company, Scout Ltd., began developing in 2014 when she bought the former Bok Technical High School building in South Philly.
Her project sparked media criticism in its early days. The maker space’s opening was overshadowed by the beer garden Le Bok Fin. Some writers and a few protesters bristled at a rooftop bar above a shuttered school in a neighborhood of mostly people of color. But many alumni and neighborhood residents expressed support.
Bok’s makerspace tenants include, in Scannapieco’s words, “a ton of people who don’t look like hipsters,” such as renowned clarinet repairer Marc Jacoby, a local boxing gym and a Cambodian nonprofit empowering women, C.A.G.E. Scannapieco said 85 percent of the maker space’s occupants live within a mile of the building.
Scout’s venture into the development world happened in part by circumstance. Scannapieco had been living and operating her company in London. Attempts to purchase vacant space in London coincided with a desire to move stateside. At about the same time, the shuttered Bok building had become available for the bargain price of $2.1 million.
So Scannapieco took the dive and recommends it for others who can make it happen.
“I would love,” she said, “to see more women in the field.”