"When I'm out talking about how to get things going and revive [blighted] blocks," Greenlee said, "I use the Arts Garage as an example, and they are doing a great job."
With that kind of political support, one can't blame Solanke for thinking it would be a snap to expand.
But three years later, Solanke, 44, said that he is "very frustrated" after trying for the past eight years to buy vacant, city-owned land on Parrish Street, just north of the Arts Garage, to use for off-street parking.
At a Temple University forum last month, Solanke vented that frustration, becoming the latest public victim of the city's longstanding problem of how to handle its 40,000 vacant lots and 20,000 abandoned buildings.
"Why do we have three different agencies giving three different prices for one piece of land?" Solanke asked.
He had received a price of $220,000 from the Redevelopment Authority, a price of $52,000 from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. and a final price of $198,000 from the Department of Public Property.
Now, the lot may be sold to the Philadelphia Boys Choir, which city officials say also is planning to buy a building across the street to use for rehearsal space.
"I feel like they are now pricing me out of the market," Solanke said.
From blight to nightlife
In 2001, Solanke was inspired by former Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which cleared and acquired vacant properties to prepare them for inner-city development.
The former insurance-risk analyst and his wife, Lisa, who used to run an art gallery in Mount Airy, bought several properties from private owners on the dilapidated wedge bounded by Ridge Avenue and Parrish, 15th and 16th streets.
They bought two buildings on Parrish Street and the building that would become the Arts Garage behind them for $130,000, and six other properties on Ridge Avenue - four vacant storefronts and two lots - for a total of $3,600, he said.
The Solankes and their four children moved from Chestnut Hill to a house they renovated on Parrish Street. Ola Solanke spent $500,000 fixing up the Arts Garage, turning a former horse stable and oil-distribution center behind his home into an edgy performance and exhibition space.
Soon after Solanke and his wife began buying up the block, he inquired in 2002 about buying the city-owned lot next door to his home. It took three years of pestering for Solanke to get an offer from the Redevelopment Authority, which listed the property for $220,000.
But public records show that many similar city-owned properties in the area were going for only $1. In addition, one property was sold for $30,000 and another for $55,000. But the RDA wouldn't budge on the price, so Solanke passed.
Then, in September 2009, Elizabeth Gabor, of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., e-mailed Solanke to say that it would sell the lot for $52,000.
At that price, Solanke pounced.
He arranged for financing, but two weeks later, Gabor told him that he needed to talk with the Department of Public Property, which told him that the land would go for $198,000.
John Herzins, deputy commissioner of the DPP, said last week that the $52,000 offer was an error.
"We never asked PIDC to do that appraisal [for $52,000], nor did we review it or accept it," Herzins said.
Now it looks as if the lot will go to the Boys Choir.
Representatives of the Boys Choir didn't return calls for comment, but Councilman Clarke and David Fecteau, the city's regional planner for North Philadelphia, said that legislation has been proposed to authorize selling the lot to the Boys Choir for $198,000.
RDA, PIDC, PHA ...
Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, said that Solanke's experience is not unusual.
He said that publicly owned vacant land could be controlled by the PIDC, RDA, DPP, PHA (Philadelphia Housing Authority) or PHDC (Philadelphia Housing Development Corp.). That tangled bureaucracy can bog down commercial or altruistic efforts for development in an infuriating mess of alphabet soup, he said.
"There's a lack of coordination among all the agencies, and they all have different missions and different rules on how they can sell the properties [that they control]," Sauer said.
"If I wanted to build 20 or 50 new houses, I'd need to go to three different agencies or a bunch of different private owners to assemble that property," Sauer said.
Terry Gillen, RDA executive director, said that the city was working to get a handle on city-owned vacant lots, which account for a quarter of the empty land in the city.
"When I first got to RDA in June of 2008, I asked . . . for a list of what we own," she said. "They gave me a list, and what they thought we owned was 3,500 parcels."
After a year of research, she said, the RDA discovered it owned only 2,500 parcels.
Last fall, Nutter assembled a vacant-land working group of city officials and placed Managing Director Richard Negrin in charge of it.
Negrin's chief of staff, Brian Abernathy, acknowledged that the city doesn't have a "great inventory of what all the vacant property is."
"We're continuing to coordinate who owns vacant property and where they are," he said. "At the same time, we are dealing with how to sell them and what's [the] right process to make sure all the various agencies are coordinating."
Sauer said that he would like to see the creation of a land bank, one agency that developers would deal with when they want to buy blighted lots. He said that he also would prefer the city to consider selling land at below-market value to certain kinds of organizations, such as arts groups.
"You can't always let the short-term goal of getting as much money as you can for a property to drive the whole process," Sauer said. "Sometimes you really need to look at what's best for the long term, and that could be supporting an arts district."
Clarke said that he plans to introduce legislation that would give the city the power to seize vacant or abandoned properties owned by private individuals who fail to improve blighted lots.
But none of those potential solutions is likely to help Solanke, who now has stiff competition for the Parrish Street lot.
Clarke said he hopes that the choir and Solanke can work out a deal to share the land, which both groups would use for parking, but Solanke thinks that because the Boys Choir has the resources to pay the city's asking price, he may be out of luck.
And leaders of other arts groups say that Solanke is just the type of person that the city should want buying up once-blighted areas.
"What Ola's doing is creating an arena where intermingling and tolerance are accepted. It's got to happen in this city, and somebody has got to do it," said Elijah Dornstreich, a co-founder of Fourth Wall, a new arts program that sponsors monthly "salons" around the city. September's was at the Arts Garage.
"It's a reality. We can't live on cheesesteaks and soft pretzels forever."