Philadelphia could make history with land bank plan

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke
Posted: November 26, 2013

Maybe City Councilman Bobby Henon said it best on Thursday: "Right now, we have opportunity to make historic changes."

Henon, chairman of Council's Public Property Committee, was talking about the bill to create a land bank.

It's a system Atlanta, Cleveland, St. Louis, and other cities have adopted and that supporters say could help cure the blight haunting many Philadelphia neighborhoods.

But with history at stake, the proposal seems stuck.

The bill introduced in Council last month would establish a land bank, a uniform system for acquiring and disposing of Philadelphia's 40,000 vacant and abandoned properties, a quarter of which are city-owned, and putting them to productive use - whether as community gardens or upscale townhouses or affordable housing. Philadelphia would become the largest U.S. city with a land bank.

But a dispute between Council President Darrell L. Clarke and the bill's main sponsor, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, over a Council advisory board that Clarke inserted into the bill is turning into a showdown with even state legislators taking sides.

"A land bank should be as independent of the current, stagnant political process as possible," State Reps. John J. Taylor (R., Phila.) and Chris Ross (R., Chester) wrote to Council last week. They were referring to the convoluted and confusing process for acquiring city property - a part of which Clarke wants to keep in the bill.

Taylor and Ross are paying attention for a reason: They pushed the legislation that enables Philadelphia and other cities in the state to start land banks.

The bill in Council would cut red tape significantly. But land bank advocates, who range from community groups to builders to Realtors, still want one notorious bit of that tape removed: the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC), a 40-year-old Council advisory panel that holds monthly hearings on land transfers.

That's the panel Clarke wants kept in the process.

Quiñones-Sánchez, who has championed the land bank idea for years, is trying to persuade her colleagues that including the VPRC - along with a required Council resolution for every land decision, and a vote of approval from the bank's board - is too much process.

Clarke, who as Council president appoints the VPRC chair, disagrees. He calls the panel one of the most transparent in City Hall.

In an effort to salvage the bill, Quiñones-Sánchez proposed last week that it be amended to include the "option" of using the VPRC in the land disposition process: district Council members could opt to have that panel review land bank decisions in their districts.

But on Thursday morning, a nearly hour-long meeting between Clarke and Quiñones-Sánchez - with Councilman Curtis Jones serving as intermediary - proved fruitless, and the bill was held back from a final vote.

Quiñones-Sánchez is moving on to Plan C: ironing out other issues Clarke has with the bill, such as naming of bank board members, and funding. "Try to agree on other stuff since we don't agree on VPRC," she said Friday.

She plans to meet with Clarke again early this week. "Once I resolve all other issues, I'm going to canvass my colleagues."

One colleague, Henon - who as chairman of the property committee helped advance the bill - said he'd rather enact it as is and see how things go.

"If we want to move land bank forward, we've got to move land bank forward," Henon said as Council members waited for Clarke and Quiñones-Sánchez to emerge from their meeting. "Nothing is going to be perfect right out of the gate."

What other cities did

If Philadelphia wants to make history, as Henon suggests, it could learn from history.

Experts and officials in cities with land banks suggest that when it comes to putting abandoned or otherwise blighted land to better use, the less red tape and the fewer stops in City Hall, the better.

When Cleveland launched its land bank 35 years ago, decisions on each piece of property had to go through several review groups, including a planning commission and a few City Council committees, said Chris Warren, Cleveland's chief of regional development.

Now Cleveland's system is streamlined to two steps: a board's approval, and an OK from the City Council.

"Our view is you don't want to create so much process that you deflect interest," Warren said.

When Philadelphia's initial land bank plan came out last year, the councilmanic prerogatives built into the bill raised a few eyebrows. The Show-Me Institute in St. Louis, a public-policy think tank, wrote an op-ed piece in The Inquirer warning that such prerogatives could "almost certainly thwart development."

Clarke has deflected criticism of his insistence on a VPRC role by blaming the Nutter administration for delays in closings on properties in the existing system.

To make his point, Clarke had his staff track down all Council resolutions passed in the last five years authorizing disposition of parcels in his district. Of 494 properties he signed off on, his office said, just over a third had gone to settlement.

"City Council oversight and approval should not be the issue at hand," Clarke wrote Thursday in reply to Taylor and Ross. "Rather, the impediment is the system that both precedes and follows Council approval."

Developers and land bank advocates frustrated by the current system say the problem is at both ends - Council and the administration. Getting a land proposal before the VPRC, by most accounts, is not a clear or easy process.

If Council members "don't want something, it will just never make it on the [VPRC] agenda," said Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corps.

Sauer and other land bank supporters hope the bill gets to a final vote before New Year's.

For her part, Quiñones-Sánchez described her Thursday meeting with Clarke as "making progress," but she still disagrees with the Council president's vision for the bill - and he with hers.

They have two weeks left to work out their differences if her land bank bill is to be enacted next month. That's what Clarke promised her, she said.

"We're going to get it done by the end of the year," Quiñones-Sánchez told The Inquirer on Friday. As for the VPRC dispute, she said, "We'll have to agree to disagree on that matter."

That is, if they want to make history.


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|