Philadelphia took a giant step forward to a new future this week as its Land Bank was signed into law. At once begins the nation’s largest effort to recycle blighted and abandoned urban land. This new tool holds the potential to do more than any other single agency to turn this city around – if we do it right and keep its long-term objectives in mind at all times.
If we do it wrong, on the other hand, we will turn it into merely another empty promise – the governmental equivalent of a vacant lot.
The purpose of the Land Bank is to consolidate all blighted land into a single office; to clear up decay and write off losses; to repackage properties so they can be conveniently shopped for and sold to the private sector, or repurposed in other ways that add value to the city.
What Saudi Arabia is to oil, Philadelphia is to vacant lots. Collectively these 40,000 blighted parcels form a tremendous asset as well as a nuisance. Other Rust Belt cities are also plagued with unused land. But this city is no Detroit. There is plenty of economic activity in the Delaware Valley, plenty of employers and plenty of workers looking for work and home sites. There is a market here. Reform of the zoning code has shown that when obstacles to development are removed, people want to build and spend money here.
Every parcel and every neighborhood is different. What works in Kensington may not work in Kingsessing. In some places, abandoned housing can be salvaged and turned into affordable housing. The Genesee Co. Land Bank in troubled Flint, Mich., a national model, has made many a humble working family a first-time homeowner for the price of $1.
Not all parcels can get this treatment, though. Some may be better marketed to public institutions for expansion space – for new schools or police stations or senior centers, for new parks or urban farms. Some of these new uses may be permanent, others just temporary “place-holders” until future changes hike the economic potential of the property. Anything we do right away is better than neglect.
But the Land Bank’s top goal must be to turn as much land as possible into taxpaying developments as fast as possible. Private-sector employers and middle-class residents are in short supply here, which is why Philadelphia leads the nation’s large cities in poverty. If it makes its underused land affordable and accessible, it can attract thousands of new jobs and citizens.
They, in turn, can create the tax base to provide needed assistance to the city’s poor. The political world has changed in the last 10 years. Philadelphia can no longer rely on state and federal largesse to address its social problems; we must grow our own money on our own land.
2014 will be the year for building the systems of our Land Bank – a development project in its own right. It is important that its managers and the politicians who oversee them make these systems easy, user-friendly, practical and productive. Remember, this agency does not have to be a drain on the city budget. Just like the Water Dept. and Philadelphia Gas Works, it can make its own money.
Successful land banks in other cities keep political oversight light-handed. Managers should be trusted to make good calls in a businesslike manner and not second-guessed. The wishes of the current communities can be listened to; but it is vital to consider the wishes of newcomers whom we want to join our communities to help rebuild them. That’s what growth is all about.