Philadelphia's vacant properties for sale to be posted online

Posted: May 23, 2012

For the first time, the city’s vast inventory of 9,000 vacant properties for sale will be just a mouse click away.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) is rolling out a new online site for viewing all of its vacant land and buildings, as well as the holdings of the Public Property Department and the city-run Philadelphia Housing Development Corp.

The official launch will be in June. Technicians are working out the bugs, but the site will be accessible through the main PRA page (www.phila.gov/pra). So be patient.

If all goes as planned, you’ll be able to scan a map of the city showing properties for sale, scroll over an address to find out critical information — the agency that owns it, its size, zoning, and availability — and send the city an e-mail to express your interest.

Eventually, too, the site will include price information.

John Carpenter, the PRA’s deputy executive director, who gave a preview for reporters Monday, calls it a “front door” to the city for potential developers. Before, there was not so much a doorway as a labyrinth of confusing pathways to acquiring vacant land from city agencies that more often than not led to a dead end.

But the new site, more than a year in the making, marks a milestone in terms of the city’s ability to better manage its massive inventory of vacant land. The city estimates that there are 40,000 abandoned buildings and lots, a quarter of which are directly owned by the city. The Philadelphia Housing Authority owns about another 3,000 vacant properties, with the rest in private hands.

The Internet mapping is an essential piece of a new city policy on managing vacant land, outlined in a paper released Monday by the Nutter administration. More than a year in the making, the 10-page report clearly states the city’s goal of putting idle property into the hands of new users.

“What’s different about this document is that it exists at all,” said Bridget Collins-Greenwald, commissioner of the Department of Public Property. She said the “heavy lifting” was getting all the city agencies that had any role in vacant land into one room to reach a consensus on managing vacant property.

Mayor after mayor has wrung his hands over the city’s problem. Carpenter said that until recently, policy was “fractured” and different departments with crucial data “did not talk to each other.” The city spent $350,000 to develop the new mapping system using technology from the Davenport Group.

With the new approach, the PRA will act as the first contact for buyers, but the actual disposition of land will be handled by whichever agency owns the property, Carpenter said.

The city intends to sell vacant land at market rates, with buyers knowing prices as soon as the process begins.

The PRA is doing a “mass appraisal,” Carpenter said, using aggregate economic and market data pulled from multiple sources to arrive at prices. But for properties that attract more interest, the city will have separate appraisals and take competing bids. Carpenter said the PRA may also enlist brokers to handle sales.

Applicants will be expected to develop and use property in a timely manner and must be able to demonstrate that they have the money to do so. Owners who have been the subject of foreclosure in the last five years or who have significant code violations on existing properties are not eligible.

Special consideration on price will be given to developers of affordable housing or economic development projects, community gardens, and side yards.

The new policy, plus the website, are attempts to take the mystery out of land sales, Carpenter said. But the new approach cannot take the politics out of land transactions. City Council must sign off on each transaction. At the very least, Carpenter said, the new land management system will allow the PRA to keep track of transactions and note when a deal is thwarted or ignored by Council.

Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @j_linq.

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