Thursday, January 7, 2010

Changing the Guard

Jeff Sanford looks back on a decade at the Center City Commission.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 7, 2010 at 4:00 AM

When Jeff Sanford took over as head of the Center City Commission in 1998, the Pyramid's empty space was being touted as the future home of a Grammy Museum; AutoZone Park and FedExForum and most of Peabody Place had not been built; office buildings were giving way to housing; and the shortcomings of a pedestrian mall were painfully obvious.

In other words, while some things about downtown have changed, some have stayed the same.

Sanford, 67, announced last month that he plans to leave his job in July to go into consulting. So when we sat down this week for an exit interview, it was really only half exit interview and half what's-your-last-act interview.

Exuberantly praised last year by Councilman Joe Brown for his "guts" and, uh, manliness, Sanford is an amiable, low-key guy with a reined-in ego, a small office across the plaza from City Hall, a staff of 15 administrators, and a $3.5 million operating budget. A member of the City Council himself from 1977 to 1983, Sanford reminded me that he still has six months to go and then honed in on nitty-gritty details of downtown infrastructure before we got to the big stuff.

The CCC to-do list for 2010 includes sprucing up streets and alleys, cracking down on panhandlers and sales of single beers and "pesky street behavior," and handing over management of street parking to a private company. A master of finding empty spaces and milking parking meters for a couple of hours on 50 cents, I looked nervously out the window at the mention of this one.

"We have not been very successful in finding the money to implement the 2001 Streetscape Master Plan for 80 square blocks of downtown," he said. "We have spent about $5 million of the $75 million that is needed."

The Center City Commission is a relatively modern invention, dating back some 35 years. What gave it clout was the blessing of key developers and its ability to grant tax freezes as an incentive to develop new properties like Barbaro Flats or fix up old buildings like Lincoln American Tower. Depending on your point of view, the glass is half-full or half-empty. Some $5 billion has been invested downtown in the last 15 years, but the four corners of the intersection of Union and the Main Street mall remain vacant.

"Changing a neighborhood or a city takes decades, not days," he said. "I've had to learn the true meaning of the expression that patience is a virtue."

Here's what he had to say about some hot-button topics.

On Bass Pro: "Given the choices, it is still the best option. It's that or an empty building."

On cars on the mall: "Someone came here and said it could be done for a few thousand dollars, but when you start looking at the details, it isn't easy. It would take $10 million to return cars to the mall. It's like forcing a square peg in a round hole."

On Mud Island park, which went from a $20 million project to a $60 million project while he was a councilman: "One problem has always been coming up with a reason to return. I'm hopeful that plans will include new reasons to make return visits."

On the Sterick Building and other "big empties": "As developers say, it simply doesn't pencil. Not as a hotel, residential, or office. Boarding up broken windows with plywood is not putting the best face on downtown. We need a higher standard."

On whether there is a need for both the CCC and Riverfront Development Corporation: "Next question. I've been asked that before, but I'm not in position to make a judgment."

On consolidation of city and county government: "I have been a proponent since before my council days."

On AutoZone Park: "Look for new ownership of the physical property as well as the team. Something other than it falling back on the taxpayers."

On whether Midtown, Whitehaven, or other areas should have development corporations: "New York has close to 60 CCCs. I see no reason why it couldn't potentially work in other locations."

On future consulting: "I plan to take what I learned here over 12 years and offer my advice to city builders in other cities and maybe even help analyze market opportunities here."

We were out of time. My parking meter had clicked over to red. No ticket. Another revenue opp lost. Take that, CCC.

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