Flawed Vacant Land Management

At over 40,000 parcels, Philadelphia’s vacant land problem is literally everywhere. 25% of the vacant parcels are publicly-owned by five different City agencies, each with different incentives and regulations regarding the dispersal of the land. Although a true City-wide consensus and policy regarding public vacant land has yet to appear, there are a few glimmers of hope.

  • The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) has launched an online, interactive map showing available public vacant land parcels. From this map you can view the parcel’s address, zoning, land area, and price. You can even “express interest” in parcel online.
  • The City’s new “Policies for the Sale and Reuse of City-owned Property” was published in April 2012. In addition to [finally] outlining some guiding principles for the sale and reuse of City properties, it also offers some opportunities for legal community intervention through affordable housing and urban agriculture.

The other 75% of vacant land in the City is privately-owned. The majority of the private lots are less than 1/10-th of an acre and many, many years tax-delinquent. It is time-consuming and costly for the City to acquire ownership of private, tax-delinquent properties through tax foreclosure, so they remain vacant, year after year. Additionally, the City’s Licenses & Inspections (L&I) Department does not have the protocol or man power to enforce the maintenance of vacant lots (that is… when they can even find the owner!).

So, what can be done? In many cases the community, frustrated with stagnant redevelopment activity and a non-responsive City government, take matters in to their own hands and adopt a vacant land site themselves. These community members put their own money and man power in to stabilizing the blighted vacant land, only to have it taken away from them when a better development opportunity arises (in the case of private vacant land) or to have the City government tell them they were trespassing (in the case of public vacant land).

  • In the City’s Fishtown neighborhood, community members created the “Leopard Street Garden”  at the corner of Thompson and Leopard streets and have been caring for the site for 15 years. This project was possible through an informal agreement with the private owner that said they could use the site until the owner was “ready to use it themselves.” According to a City Paper article this week, the owner is ready to sell to the site to another developer. The community has some oversight over whether the site gets redeveloped into 12 residential units through the Fishtown Neighbors Association, and they have voted against! But that didn’t keep the owner from leveling their garden and erasing their 15-year investment from the face of the neighborhood.
  • In the City’s Point Breeze neighborhood, a local business owner and developer invested over $20,000 to clean out a trash strewn eye sore owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. The developer states in a recent Philly.com article that his many calls to the PRA to either clean up the site themselves or allow him to lease or purchase the site, were rebuffed, and he was told to leave the site alone. Now after investing in trash disposal, some landscaping and fencing, the well-meaning developer has been told that he was trespassing and must return the site to its original condition! Really, the City wants him to get the several tons of trash he had hauled away, re-dumped on the site?? What I don’t understand, is why the City didn’t allow the developer to just lease or purchase the site out right. They would have gotten revenue from selling the trash strewn lot, would no longer be liable for the horrendous condition of the site (not that they were doing anything about it) and the neighborhood could rally around a new development (hopefully with lots of public green space). The City’s response to this situation seems to be in direct contradiction to their policies for the sale and reuse of the City land, which includes “eliminate blight and revitalize neighborhoods.”

But, let me know what you think!