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Could Land Banking Offer a Better, Safer Way Forward?

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Yesterday's fatal building collapse at 22nd & Market is a tragic reminder that the City of Philadelphia's system of monitoring demolition safety and vacant properties needs a serious overhaul. While shocking details emerge of the negligence behind the haphazard demolition that ultimately took six lives, now more than ever is the time to push for stricter policies to identify unsafe structures and push toward redevelopment.

It's no secret that Philadelphia is teeming with abandoned buildings. While neighborhoods like Fishtown, Northern Liberties, and Point Breeze have experienced a surge of redevelopment, countless other snakebit neighborhoods might stand a much better chance if a single entity was created -- an organization focused on the safety and redevelopment of blighted properties?a land bank, perhaps?

Land banking has three main goals:
1. The acquisition and maintenance of tax-delinquent / foreclosed properties
2. Streamlining the purchasing process for prospective developers
3. Overseeing the redevelopment of these acquired properties

Cities like Cleveland, Louisville, and Atlanta have all incorporated land banking into their redevelopment stategies. Land bank advocates are working on making Philadelphia the nation's largest city to form a land bank with their February 2012 introduction of Bill No. 120052 to city council.

The bill would formally create the Philadelphia Land Bank. Land bank proponents want to see long-term development rather than short-term profit, so projects like mixed-income housing, new businesses, community centers, and public parks would be encouraged and given priority to responsible developers willing to invest in struggling neighborhoods.

The Land Bank would allow the city to acquire tax-delinquent properties only after giving owners the option of an income-based repayment plan. If denied the City of Philadelphia could purchase the property at a price determined by market value and its overall condition (subject to appeal by the owner). If acquired, the demolition (or restoration) of crumbling buildings would be at the hands of city-contracted union laborers in possession of the proper licenses and certifications required for the job.

While the building involved in yesterday's collapse had zero tax delinquencies and therefore would not have been a candidate for acquisition by the proposed Philadelphia Land Bank, countless other deteriorating properties in every neighborhood across the city do qualify and would be closely monitored, not demolished recklessly or worse, left to decay.

Philly's particular set of entangled problems (massive budget cuts, school closings, uncollected property taxes dating back decades, and most trenchantly, tens of thousands of abandoned properties) create quiet, day-to-day problems for the city (eyesores abound, there's never enough money, large swaths of the city suffer from general neglect), but they can also result in highly visible catastrophes like yesterday's. Clearly, the city needs to attack the ever-growing knot of blight and vacancy related issues. If funded and governed by responsible community advocates committed to the growth of our city, land banking might move Philadelphia towards a better, safer future.
· As Philly land bank momentum slows, proponents want administration to take lead [Plan Philly]
· Land Bank Bill (Bill 120052) [Phila.gov]
· http://www.metro.us/philadelphia/news/local/2013/06/05/doc-market-street-collapse-site-was-absolute-recipe-for-disaster/ [Metro]
—Zach Patten