Darrell's developers: Love him, hate him, donate to him

Posted: June 25, 2014

MANY real-estate developers privately fume about City Council President Darrell Clarke, saying he obstructs projects in his district and goes out of his way for only a handful of favored builders.

But this apparent antagonism hasn't prevented developers and those connected to the business from providing an immense amount of support to Clarke's campaigns over the years.

In 2011, his last re-election year, at least 42 percent of the money Clarke raised came from the development community, according to a Daily News analysis.

"People know that if you want to do business in that district, you have to show up at fundraisers and write big checks," one developer said. "You have to be seen as a supporter."

A lobbyist who represents developers said: "I have heard from people around Clarke that 'you really should organize a fundraiser for him.' Most of the people already know that."

In dozens of interviews, developers who work in Clarke's district, lawyers and lobbyists who help them navigate City Hall, and bureaucrats who process city land transactions consistently described a process in which Clarke throws up unexplained roadblocks to projects and creates a culture in which it is assumed, and sometimes suggested, that you have to pay to play.

From January 2011 to early 2014, a majority of significant sales of city-owned land that Clarke green-lighted have involved either longtime donors or people who recently started giving to his campaign, according to an analysis of records from the city Redevelopment Authority and the Vacant Property Review Committee that were obtained through a Right to Know Act request. Small sales for side lots or gardens and transactions with nonprofits or other city agencies were excluded from the analysis.

Most people contacted for this article declined to comment or requested anonymity because they need to work with Clarke, a potential mayoral candidate next year.

None said Clarke, whose 5th District includes central North Philadelphia and parts of Center City, personally offered a quid pro quo of action in exchange for campaign contributions.

In a statement, Clarke campaign spokesman Dan Gross said, "Council President Clarke has not, does not and will not direct anyone to solicit contributions or fundraisers from those who wish to develop in his district."

Gross, a former columnist for the Daily News, also said the notion that Clarke is anti-development is "absurd," pointing to recently unveiled plans to subsidize 1,500 affordable housing units across the city and to revitalize North Broad Street.

He also cited Clarke's effort to get the School District of Philadelphia $50 million in short-term funding by buying dozens of empty school buildings from it and reselling them through city agencies. Gross said the plan "represents a commitment to development throughout the city."

Pleasing the 5th

Four years ago, Alex Do, whose family owns a seafood store at 17th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, came up with a plan to build a restaurant on two vacant lots next door. But those lots were owned by the Redevelopment Authority, and his proposal to buy them was seemingly lost in the bureaucratic morass.

Do eventually arranged a meeting with Clarke through a local pastor Do declined to name. Clarke listened to the plan and said he was interested, but he gave no definitive answer.

After the meeting, Do said, the pastor advised him to donate to Clarke's campaign, saying: "He's helping you out. Maybe you can think about it, helping him out."

"I wasn't even thinking about contacting Council about this but then I found out that they have complete control," Do said.

Do, who had never made a political donation and didn't know who Clarke was before the ordeal, said in early April that he was about to contribute to Clarke's campaign.

(After an initial interview, Do stopped responding to questions about whether he actually made the contribution. Clarke's campaign does not report its fundraising until January.)

The sales are scheduled for closing tomorrow.

One developer who wanted to buy a city-owned parcel near Temple University several years ago said the process was going smoothly - he had satisfied the concerns of the local neighborhood groups - until Clarke added yet another group to the roster, one that was farther away from the parcel.

That group was outraged at the project, and the developer's contact in Clarke's office stopped responding. Finally, a block captain who said he knew Clarke told the developer "that I got to go through them if I want to get something from the city."

"Essentially they want a bribe. Now I do not bribe anybody," said the developer, who was approached by the Daily News and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. "They say, 'Do a fundraiser for his political campaign and you're essentially not bribing him. It's all in the open.' "

The developer declined. The deal fell through.

Council prerogative

The city Home Rule Charter requires a majority of Council to approve all sales of city-owned land. In practice, however, the entire Council defers to the decision of the member who represents the district where the property is up for sale - an unwritten rule called "councilmanic prerogative" that gives district Council members enormous power.

Using prerogative to extract support for neighborhood groups, pet projects and campaign committees is nothing new.

"There is a connection between campaign contributions and the exercise of councilmanic prerogative. There's no question about it," said Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, policy director for the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "That's the kind of thing that makes people feel very cynical distrustful of government."

Clarke uses prerogative to place holds on properties in his district more than any other member of Council, according to data from the Redevelopment Authority. Many of those parcels are in the rapidly gentrifying areas surrounding Temple University and in Francisville. Clarke has said he uses prerogative to pave the way for affordable housing opportunities.

Gross, the Clarke spokesman, called prerogative "a trust and respect amongst Council members that someone who lives in a particular district may be able to contribute more insight and guidance on matters that have most impact their neighbors and their constituents."

Carl Primavera, a zoning and development lawyer for the firm Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg, said he has never heard of instances in which Clarke or people around him asked potential buyers for contributions. But given how prerogative works, he said, he's not surprised developers feel compelled to give anyway.

"Developers who are hungry for these properties think the only way they would have access to decision-makers is to go to a fundraiser," he said.

Primavera, who has contributed at least $2,000 to Clarke, said he hopes the city Land Bank, which was approved last year but hasn't launched, will streamline the process.

"It's going to be accountable because it's going to be transparent, so if there's any kind of insider deals, that would be exposed," he said. "We're optimistic that it's going to get better because it really needs to get better."

When the Land Bank was debated in Council, Clarke amended the legislation to preserve the Vacant Property Review Committee, a board that would have been sidelined by the original bill. Critics of keeping the VPRC, on which Clarke has a seat, said the move was antithetical to the Land Bank's purpose, which is to remove bureaucratic hurdles.

N. Philadelphia stories

In January 2012, developer Christopher Vecchiarelli submitted to the Redevelopment Authority expressions of interest for three adjacent properties on Montgomery Avenue near 16th Street.

Vecchiarelli contributed $1,000 to Clarke's campaign committee in December 2012 and an additional $500 in August 2013. With Clarke's nod, the Redevelopment Authority approved the project, which includes nine affordable housing units, in February.

Vecchiarelli's only other contribution to Clarke was for $100 in September 2003. On the same day, Frank Vecchiarelli also gave $100 to Clarke. A company with the address they used for the contributions purchased a city-owned property in Clarke's district months later, in 2004.

The Vecchiarellis appear to have never made another donation to a candidate for office in Philadelphia, according to the city Records Department's online database. (Because some campaigns are not required to file electronically in nonelection years, it's possible they have made other contributions that are not searchable.)

Christopher Vecchiarelli did not respond to requests for comment.

Developer Roland Kassis, who has done notable projects on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, had donated to city candidates in the past, but never to Clarke.

In late 2012 and early 2013, he submitted expressions of interest for properties in Clarke's district. In December 2013, Kassis said, he and his brother Christian hosted a fundraiser for Clarke and each donated $2,900.

Kassis was unsuccessful in several of the properties he applied for but did get Clarke's approval to buy a lot on Front Street.

Kassis said that the fundraising and the land sale were unrelated and that he hopes Clarke will run for mayor next year.

"We did a fundraiser for him . . . because we believe in him. He's the guy that makes thing happen," he said. "I didn't donate money to Darrell or anybody because I want something."

The development firm United Home Builders in May 2011 donated $10,000 to Clarke's campaign. Three months earlier, a related firm got approval to buy city-owned properties on Park Avenue near Dauphin Street.

Michael Alhadad, the developer behind United, declined to comment when reached by phone.

A firm controlled by Herbert Reid Jr. and his son Herbert Reid III acquired four lots on North 16th Street from the city in December 2012. The Reids have given at least $11,500 to Clarke's campaigns over the years.

Reid III said they give to Clarke because he is an "effective leader" with a "real vision for where the city is headed."

"It hasn't been a nefarious thing. It's not a pay-to-play situation," he said.

Although Clarke often fights to ensure projects in his district offer affordable housing opportunities, Reid III said they haven't done that kind of development but hope to so soon.

Developer Stephen Ehrenhalt, another early Clarke backer, has also had recent success in the district. His firm Steph-Sin Development bought five properties from the city in 2013 and another in 2012. Ehrenhalt gave Clarke $500 in 2003, $500 in 2010 and $1,000 in 2013. Sak San Ehrenhalt, who shares an address with Stephen, gave $1,000 in 2007.

Ehrenhalt did not respond to a request for comment.

The Clarke campaign declined to comment on the examples described in this article.

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN

Blog: ph.ly/PhillyClout

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