Fixing Philadelphia's abandoned factories

Posted: May 24, 2012

You read the H Street saga, and you wonder: How can the city better prevent debacles like this — the kind that destroy neighborhoods and put people’s lives at risk — from happening in the future?

It’s a loaded question, sure, but let’s start by looking at one glaring problem with the Kensington warehouse that was consumed by a seven-alarm fire on June 20, 2007: The Department of Licenses & Inspections issued several meaningless fire-code violation notices to the owner of the lot, the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development, in the months and years leading up to the blaze.

Why were the violation notices meaningless?

L&I wouldn’t take another city department to court, an L&I spokeswoman explained, so there was no chance the violations would lead to any penalties.

City Councilman Bill Green has offered a potential solution: giving a third party the power to make sure the city is obeying its own rules when it comes to responsible property ownership.

“The practical reality is that maybe we need to appoint some third party or create a separate office that’s independent of the administration to enforce L&I violations against the city,” he said.

Another aspect of the H Street saga that seems to be begging for a remedy: For the past five years, the Department of Public Property has owned the lot where the factory once stood, and did nothing while the site was turned into an illegal dumping ground.

Community members repeatedly begged the city to allow them to develop the site into a garden. Their pleas were ignored.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez introduced legislation earlier this year to create a land bank that would make it easier for communities to claim city-owned vacant lots.

“This is precisely what the land bank is designed to deal with,” said Green, who co-sponsored the bill.

“It would promote turning over a certain percentage of land to [community-development groups and residents] to create gardens and other types of developments that residents could enjoy.”

The Nutter administration has been exploring various angles to the vacant property issue for the past 18 months.

Last week, the city unveiled a website that shows nearly every city-held property on a map that also features prices and other information for potential buyers.

The city also put in place new, streamlined rules for selling land to developers, individuals or community groups. n

Contact David Gambacorta at 215-854-5994, or on Twitter @dgambacorta.

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