With new site, city government gets it right — finally

Posted: May 25, 2012

"Today, city officials, community activists, residents … gathered to commemorate the end of unmanaged vacant land as we know it in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods on what was the last unmanaged vacant lot in the city."

Those promising words were included in a Philadelphia Horticultural Society report on the city’s vacant land; it was released in 2000.

At that time, the city had 30,000 vacant and abandoned properties and the 2000 report was just the latest in a series of studies, programs and initiatives to clean up the city’s act and claim, clean and/or dispose of its blight-inducing abandoned properties. Two years later, Mayor Street launched a neighborhood-transformation initiative that would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the problem.

Fast forward to today: The city’s vacant-properties tally is now 40,000. The city owns about a quarter of those. Some are owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, some by the Public Property department and some by Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. Those multiple jurisdictions have been a big problem, since anyone interested in buying city property has had to navigate through a maddening bureaucratic maze to even find out which agency has oversight, and then to figure out the different rules that govern acquiring the properties. In a city where many things don’t work, the city-owned vacant-land system was an epic fail.

Earlier this week, though, that optimistic prediction of 2000 finally came true, when the PRA and Public Property unveiled a new online tool that serves as a "front door" for interested buyers. ( www.phila.gov/pra). It has consolidated and mapped the city-owned properties that are available, so now those interested in acquiring a property for anything from a sideyard to a large development can see immediately what property is available, which agency has jurisdiction, and then file an expression of interest in the property, which gets directed to the right agency. There are kinks and bugs to be worked out, but the program is user-friendly. And rather than costing hundreds of millions of dollars, the PRA estimates that they spent about $350,000 over the past year and a half putting it together. And this is our highest praise: It doesn’t look like a government-created program.

That’s part of what makes the program so revolutionary. Too often, government gets in its own way, and the public ends up with no access to valuable data and useful information. That leaves it up to plucky citizens to release and curate information that has the potential to make our city better.

For instance, there were only a few ways to keep up on Council hearings until recently: attend the daytime events yourself (you don’t work, right?), watch them live online or read the transcripts when they became available days, and sometimes weeks, later. And there was no archive.

That’s finally changed, but no thanks to our taxpayer dollars. Temple Law grad Timothy Holwick started a blog ( ph.ly/councilmatters), where you can find audio recordings of Council meetings, written testimony and other goodies. Similarly, developer/geek Casey Thomas took it upon himself to create a streamlined lobbying website (lobbying.ph) where you can search reams of data on local lobbyists.

We like the idea of citizens helping make government more accessible and useful, but we like it even better when government remembers that this kind of information is, in part, why we pay taxes. n

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