Changing Skyline: Despite his bad behavior, Greene made Philadelphia better

The Martin Luther King homes are among many low-rise developments built by the Philadelphia Housing Authority under Carl R. Greene. During his tenure, the agency's bleak high-rise towers were reduced in number by more than half, to 19.
The Martin Luther King homes are among many low-rise developments built by the Philadelphia Housing Authority under Carl R. Greene. During his tenure, the agency's bleak high-rise towers were reduced in number by more than half, to 19.
Posted: September 17, 2010

If you've always suspected that not much separates the can-do executive from the megalomaniacal tyrant, now you have Carl R. Greene as proof that the Boss From Hell really is The Boss From Hell. Still, it's hard to believe that a man who appears to have behaved like a monster with his staff could have done so much to make Philadelphia a more livable and successful city.

Greene's accomplishments at the helm of the Philadelphia Housing Authority may not be foremost in our minds right now, as we stand with our mouths agape, watching him implode his own life with the same compulsive efficiency he used to implode the city's blighted public-housing towers.

Based on the near daily revelations about Greene's misbehavior, it looks like the guy was a serial sexual harasser, an office despot who terrorized allies and enemies alike. Yet Greene's take-no-prisoners management style is also a big reason that so few of those forbidding high-rises remain to cast their dark shadows over the city.

Because Greene was ruthlessly focused on his goals during his dozen years at the PHA, he was able to reduce the number of towers by more than half, to 19. Of course, most American cities went on a similar demolition spree during the Clinton years. The difference, experts say, is that Greene also saw himself as a builder - and Philadelphia's most powerful developer.

Under his rule, the detested towers were replaced with rowhouse-style homes that were designed to blend gracefully into Philadelphia's redbrick neighborhoods. The PHA built or renovated 7,600 units during the last decade. That's a full one-third of all the new housing created during the city's boom years. It's also more than other cities built, says John Landis, a city planner at the University of Pennsylvania's design school. Greene's PHA extracted more money from Washington than any other city housing authority.

His influence was even bigger than those numbers suggest. Once the towers' blighting cancer was excised from the neighborhoods surrounding Center City - Hawthorne, Grays Ferry, West Poplar, East Falls, Mill Creek - urban pioneers and private builders swarmed in. It's safe to say that Philadelphia's private-housing boom would never have reached its fevered pitch if public housing had not been brought up to grade.

Take the area along 13th Street between Fitzwater and Catharine occupied by Martin Luther King Plaza, where Greene built an award-winning development designed by Torti Gallas and Partners. The rowhouses mimic the staggered roof lines and eclectic facades of a typical South Philadelphia block, making the public housing almost indistinguishable from the private.

For the 81,000 Philadelphians who have the PHA as their landlord, the tidy, New Urbanist-style houses were a vast improvement over the slums in the sky - even if the PHA's waiting list did grow longer as a result of lower densities. Quality public housing also benefited the whole city. Philadelphia enjoyed a high-visibility payoff this year when Dranoff Properties opened a glitzy apartment house, named 777, next door to the PHA development.

Even a Greene skeptic like the Reinvestment Fund's Jeremy Nowak, who worked on then-Mayor John F. Street's blight-reduction initiative, credits him with helping Philadelphia enlarge the boundaries of its successful core.

"There is no doubt that the removal of the towers and the housing boom are absolutely related," Nowak, an urban economist, told me. "Before, there were all these abandoned houses around MLK where we could never find the owners. All of a sudden, the owners started emerging from the dead. That's because you had value there again."

None of the public-housing experts I interviewed for this column were the least bit surprised by the allegations against Greene. He was not liked. But his accomplishments were.

"He was an innovator and a risk-taker," said Steven D. Rudman, a Delaware County native who runs the housing authority in Portland, Ore. When Greene engaged in a public stare-down in 2008 with the Bush administration's top housing official, Alphonso Jackson, the public-housing world watched in awe, he recalled. "He was right," Rudman added.

The unmarried Greene already had been accused of sexual harassment when then-Mayor Ed Rendell recruited him in 1998, but Rendell was determined to professionalize the PHA, which had been run by politicians and was in virtual receivership. Greene is widely credited with stabilizing the agency's finances and cleaning up the notorious system of rent vouchers known as Section 8.

Because of his strong management, the Bush administration gave the PHA special privileges that enabled Greene to operate with increasing autonomy (and impunity). While he brought bushels of money to the PHA, he had no qualms about spending it. PHA houses cost about the same to build as private houses. I never minded the expenditure if it produced homes that would last. My gripe is that Greene built too many suburban-style twins in close-in neighborhoods like West Poplar and Grays Ferry.

What Greene did not do effectively was play well with others. He froze out crucial city agencies that should have been PHA partners, such as the Redevelopment Authority, and key nonprofit housing builders, such as the Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha. He was competitive in situations where it was not necessary to be competitive. In Greene's world, there were only winners and losers.

Greene's accomplishments don't excuse his apparent cruelty or thirst for power - both over the PHA and women. But for students of human character, they certainly make his fall more riveting. Greene, 53, was raised in the Washington, D.C., projects and was determined to remake public housing according to his own vision. A high school football player, he suffered a nerve injury that left him with a lifelong disability, a slack right arm.

Greene wasn't above using charm if it suited his objectives. Three of the five members of the housing authority's board have PHA facilities named after them or their relatives - chairman Street, Jannie Blackwell, and Nellie Reynolds. No wonder they gave Greene such a free hand.

Yet, a month into the scandal, the Street-chaired board hasn't named an interim director. At last week's meeting, Street seemed to be enjoying the media limelight too much to relinquish the attention. The $400 million agency has gone from an iron-willed manager to no manager.

For all his personal failings, Greene professionalized the PHA in a way that benefited Philadelphia. What a shame it would be if the pols got it back again.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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