City’s vacant lots, properties may soon become history (Philadelphia Tribune)

The Philadelphia Land Bank — tasked with transforming tax-delinquent and vacant lots and properties into viable community spaces and for–development tracts — is awaiting final act on legislation that would give the group full authority to continue its work and officially launch in 2015.

“City Council passed legislation [authorizing the land bank] last fall, and the mayor signed it almost immediately afterward,” said Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority Deputy Executive Director John Carpenter. “From before that time until now, we’ve had people working inside the administration to build the land bank and think through some of the administrative structures that the land bank needs to work with.”

Carpenter, Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation Executive Vice President Michael Koonce and Office of Housing and Community Development Director of Communications Paul D. Chrystie spoke with The Tribune editorial board about the and bank authorization bill and to discuss the land bank’s progress so far.

Carpenter said city ordinance required the land bank to complete a strategic plan that outlines market conditions and needs in the city’s neighborhoods as it relates to market–rate housing, affordable housing, economic development and green space development.

That plan is now in draft and is in the hands of the land bank’s board. It will then send the plan to council. Carpenter wants to see council approve the plan so the land bank can better prepare for operation in 2015.

Council should receive the plan in the next two weeks.

The plan — which is currently a draft mode, but viewable online at www.philadelphialandbank.org — is a comprehensive blueprint that, when implemented, will improve the quality of life in every neighborhood in Philadelphia. Through targeted strategies that address side yards, community gardens, affordable housing, private investment and other goals, this plan offers a road map for returning vacant and tax delinquent properties to productive reuse through an expedited, more transparent process.

There are currently 9,000 lots or vacant properties under the land bank’s purview; land bank executives hope to make the process easier for community groups to obtain lots and properties to convert them to community gardens or something similar.

“The land bank has the ability to acquire property with enabling legislation that allows us to go to a tax foreclosure sale to acquire property,” Koonce said. “The main purpose of the land bank is that developers, gardeners and community organization wouldn’t have to go to three separate organizations to acquire public property,” Koonce said. “The land bank has ability to deep out properties and have one transparent disposition process. It streamlines the process.”

This way, Koonce said, the land bank would more efficiently deed out its properties and led to a better maintenance of the properties the land bank has.

There are roughly 9,000 vacant properties in the public inventory that are not committed to a pending project. The land bank also identified an additional 24,000 privately-owned properties that are both vacant and tax delinquent. In total, there are an estimated 32,000 potential Land Bank properties. Of the 32,000, roughly 23,000 are individual lots, and roughly 9,000 are vacant buildings.

The land bank plan also deals with the more than 70 commercial corridors in the city, and will work to enhance economic development for shop owners adjacent to or near these abandoned lots and properties.

The plan also has built-in protections for longtime occupants and seniors on a fixed income; Carpenter said these built-in protections will also curb gentrification.

“We are going to look at existing community plans that have already been developed by the city planning commission,” Koonce said. “If that plan calls for a certain amount gardens or playgrounds or maybe there’s a need for day cares, we are going to especially consider those.”

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