Shouting it from the blacktop: Take back vacant land!

Mem­bers of 34 groups throughout the city ral­lied to­geth­er last week in an ef­fort to sup­port the Take Back Va­cant Land Co­ali­tion, all hop­ing to change how the city man­ages its va­cant prop­erty.

Com­munity act­iv­ists from the city’s First Coun­cil­man­ic Dis­trict turned out for a March 27 to dis­cuss man­aging va­cant land in Phil­adelphia — a prob­lem that con­tin­ues to blem­ish the city’s ef­fort to look sharp.

Amid a sea of yel­low — sup­port­ers of the Take Back Va­cant Land Co­ali­tion wore match­ing shirts — rep­res­ent­at­ives of com­munity groups spent the even­ing at the Circle of Hope Church, 2009 Frank­ford Ave., present­ing their cases for pas­sage of a land bank or­din­ance that re­cently was in­tro­duced in City Coun­cil.

The bill, presen­ted on Feb. 2 by Coun­cil mem­bers Maria Quinones-Sanc­hez (D-7th dist.), Curtis Jones Jr. (D-4th dist.) and Bobby Hen­on (D-6th dist.), would es­tab­lish a land bank to per­mit the city to con­sol­id­ate the own­er­ship of “pub­licly owned sur­plus prop­erty” — in this case, many of the more than 40,000 plots of city-owned va­cant land in Phil­adelphia — in­to one en­tity that would en­able the city an easi­er way to man­age and sell the tracts.

The act­iv­ists at last week’s meet­ing offered their sug­ges­tions to City Coun­cil­man Mark Squilla, who rep­res­ents the first dis­trict. Al­though there is broad sup­port of the pro­posed or­din­ance, the meet­ing was called as a way for res­id­ents and com­munity groups to ex­plain ways they hope the bill would be altered.

Act­iv­ists es­pe­cially pushed for ad­di­tion­al amend­ments, among them an as­sur­ance that res­id­ents would be part of any fu­ture board that might man­age the land bank.

“That’s what this is about today, mak­ing sure your voices are heard,” said Pas­tor Joshua Grace of Circle of Hope, not­ing that the bill is “good but there is room for im­prove­ment.”

Oth­ers at the ses­sion also want some of the land set aside for com­munity spaces, such as open-air parks, and af­ford­able hous­ing.

“We need a pro­cess, a mech­an­ism for com­munity groups that want to do something with that land to get their hands on it,” said Jeff Horn­stein, pres­id­ent of the Queens Vil­lage Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation and a former can­did­ate for Squilla’s Coun­cil seat.

To il­lus­trate the point, some res­id­ents shared stor­ies — of both suc­cess and frus­tra­tion — about deal­ing with va­cant-land is­sues.

Matt Ruben, pres­id­ent of the North­ern Liber­ties Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation, talked about the “spooky garden,” a lot at Fourth and George streets that neigh­bors have ten­ded and for many years used as a place for Hal­loween cel­eb­ra­tions.

Last year the city pos­ted the lot — and oth­ers throughout Philly — for sale on Craigslist without no­ti­fy­ing loc­als. Res­id­ents worked with the of­fice of City Coun­cil­man Dar­rell Clarke (D-5th dist.) to re­move the list­ing for the garden lot.

“It re­quires polit­ics and will if you’re go­ing to have this kind of land suc­cess story go­ing on all over the city,” said Ruben.

On the oth­er end of the spec­trum, Jeff Carpin­eta, pres­id­ent of the East Kens­ing­ton Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation, shared stor­ies of lots throughout his com­munity that have been re­claimed or sold by their long-ab­sent own­ers, but only after loc­als had cleaned and greened the plots and in­ad­vert­ently in­creased their sale val­ues for those own­ers who’d promptly sell the land.

“We could do va­cant-land hor­ror stor­ies all night,” he said.

One of the most not­able, he said, oc­curred at Em­er­ald Street Park at Dauph­in and Em­er­ald streets. The com­munity had turned about nine va­cant lots in­to beau­ti­ful, open green space.

But last year, four of the lots with­in the park were sold to a re­alty com­pany. which, If those lots were de­veloped, it would des­troy the park and years of work, he in­sisted.

Carpin­eta said he’s work­ing with the re­alty com­pany to make sure that doesn’t hap­pen.

With sens­ible le­gis­la­tion like the land bank­ing bill, Carpen­eta said, com­munit­ies like East Kens­ing­ton could see these va­cant spots — holes in the com­munity — turned in­to sus­tain­able, us­able places for all neigh­bors.

“We know our neigh­bor­hood is already grow­ing … but it’s an in­com­plete neigh­bor­hood,” he said. “Where is a policy that shows con­sid­er­a­tion for that?”

Coun­cil­man Squilla said he ap­pre­ci­ated the pas­sion on dis­play dur­ing the even­ing. However, he said, a num­ber of things must be worked out be­fore the bill can be passed; spe­cific­ally, he poin­ted to the struc­ture of any board that would be cre­ated to man­age the land bank.

He also noted that the Craigslist idea, which could have taken land from neigh­bors in the NLNA, was well-re­ceived in City Hall. But Squilla said he could find no one who knew what would hap­pen to land sold on those In­ter­net sales — per­haps open­ing it up to spec­u­lat­ors and oth­er ab­sent­ee land­lords.

“If we leave it up to the city to do this, it will fail,” said Squilla. “We need folks like you to let us know that you don’t want these prop­er­ties to be sold on Craigslist.”

While it might be some time be­fore the bill is voted on in Coun­cil, Squilla said he sup­ports it and will work to en­sure the in­clu­sion of neigh­bor­hood in­put on what be­comes of va­cant land.

ldquo;You build a neigh­bor­hood with people. The of­fi­cials work to sup­port the people, not the oth­er way around,” said Squilla. ••

Star man­aging ed­it­or Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­


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