Viaduct clean-up plan taxing residents' patience

Tamara Sepe walks on 11th Street near Wood, where trash is routinely dumped. She favors a neighborhood improvement district.
Tamara Sepe walks on 11th Street near Wood, where trash is routinely dumped. She favors a neighborhood improvement district. (SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 21, 2011

SOKING KONG, about 80, raised her fist in the air at a City Council hearing yesterday and shouted in Chinese: "I can't afford the taxation! I'm opposed to the taxation!"

Council chambers was packed for a public hearing on an ordinance to create a neighborhood improvement district in the area around the Reading Viaduct, the dilapidated railroad trestle running through the area that some neighbors and city officials hope to transform into a public park.

The NID would assess an additional 7 percent property tax on residents to raise money to clean up trash and improve safety. The tax could eventually also help pay for upkeep of the park.

After the three-hour hearing, as fellow Chinatown North residents joined with Kong in raising their fists and voices, Council announced changes to the boundaries of the Callowhill Reading Viaduct Neighborhood Improvement District, carving out a heavily Chinese two-block area between 8th and 10th streets and Vine and Callowhill streets.

The boundaries had originally extended from 8th to 13th and Vine to Spring Garden.

However, "the fight isn't over," said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.

"It's not as simple as saying we will take these two blocks out of the legislation." He said there are other property owners within the boundaries "and they don't want to be taxed 7 percent."

Councilman James Kenney, the rules committee chairman, also said that the bill was amended to strip language that said that one of the NID's missions was to "reclaim the Reading Viaduct and redevelop the structure into a park."

Many angry opponents said they had not learned about the NID - introduced by Councilman Frank DiCicco in April - until last month.

Some testified that the 7 percent tax was insignificant. A property owner paying $2,000 in real- estate taxes would pay an additional $140 a year. But others said that even 7 percent was a burden.

"A tax increase will be a real hardship to me," said James Morton, 68. "Sometimes I don't have enough money to pay for all my medicine each month. I may take a pill every other day instead of every day."

But supporters said the estimated $240,000 a year from the special tax would boost the area.

"The character, diversity and vibrancy of our neighborhood are emerging and becoming quite an attraction," said Gary Reuben, co-owner of the Wolf Building, at 12th and Callowhill. "Nonetheless, we struggle against the tide of trash and graffiti . . . which give an impression of our neighborhood as suffering from continuing decay, neglect and, of course, crime."

Tamara Sepe, a speech therapist and a parent, said she saw the NID "as an opportunity for our community to work together."

"I want to acknowledge my sadness at the fact that there are people who feel their voices have not been heard, who have felt excluded from the process," she said.

"This was certainly never our intent."

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