Clasping a large ring of keys in one hand, 61-year-old Vivian VanStory darts across the corner of 15th and West Thompson streets—in the area just west of Temple—where she’s lived for the last three decades.
Talking quickly during a tour around her neighborhood, she points to what looks like a vacant lot on the corner of the block. From the outside, the fenced-in land where three row homes once stood appears like any other of the city’s 40,000 vacant properties: hopelessly abandoned, lacking any sense of history or future purpose. The fence is mostly covered with leaves and moss, so it’s difficult to tell what’s inside.
“The city has neglected this land for decades,” VanStory says, fumbling with her keys until finding one in particular. Unraveling a metal chain lock that’s wrapped around the fence and its gate, VanStory says she’s proud of the gems in her 5th District neighborhood, despite the blight that surrounds it. Crumbling sidewalks and debris left over from torn-down houses are visible in every direction.
But tucked in the corner of the block, a well-groomed yard that rolls up to the fence’s boundaries makes itself known. Chunks of marble taken from old houses have been repurposed into benches, which are clustered around a dirt path that curves near the yard’s edges and passes a tulip garden. “This one won first prize for best children’s garden back in 1993,” says VanStory, pointing to the yard.
VanStory, the president of the Community Land Trust Corporation, along with a handful of volunteers, created the nonprofit 30 years ago in order to legally maintain the land (they currently manage about 75,000 square feet). The CLTC is funded almost entirely by private donations, generating about $3,000 a year to improve the North Central neighborhood. “We do this all ourselves … with no help from the city, with barely any funding,” VanStory says.
Which is why she’s wary of Council President Darrell Clarke’s plan to bring a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID)—a nonprofit established by City Council in which a tax is used to improve the district—into the community. Unlike VanStory’s neighborhood improvement efforts, which don’t cost residents a dime, Clarke’s NID would charge property owners, like VanStory, a fee on top of their real-estate tax. While she admits that parts of the neighborhood could use significant improvements, it’s the process of creating the NID that, VanStory says, intentionally neglects any due process.
Clarke’s plan, called the North Central Neighborhood Improvement District (NCNID), would affect the areas between Broad and 19th streets and York Street to Girard Avenue, along with five smaller pockets of houses and apartments, where many Temple students reside in off-campus housing. According to the bill, which was quickly proposed during Council’s first legislative session on Jan. 26, the fee in question—a roughly seven percent increase on real-estate taxes (on top of the 3.9 percent increase that was implemented last year to fund the city’s schools, as well as a 9.9 percent increase in 2010)—would generate nearly a half-million dollars for improving the neighborhood. The bulk of the money, about $275,000, would fund cleaning sidewalks and vacant lots; about $75,000 would go toward public safety.
But in an area in which 42 percent of property owners owe hundreds of thousands of dollars of property taxes, some see Clarke’s proposal as a burden to the already struggling neighborhood.
Clarke’s NCNID has been in the works for a while. Two years ago, before he called for any public input or even introduced his plan to Council, he authorized a nine-person steering committee to oversee the NCNID’s creation. He also created a nonprofit, the North Central Management Corporation, which would manage the proposed NCNID.
The steering committee is a self appointed group of developers seeking power from the city to tax and to place liens on property owners who fail to pay the tax to them. This is not a voluntary association; it is empowered by the city to collect taxes on every property owner as defined by the steering committee whether they agree or not with the NID.
The law in question is the 2004 “Yorktown Special District Controls” ordinance, written specifically for the North Central section of the city. The law holds, after years of tensions between students and neighbors, that Temple kids simply aren’t allowed to live in certain areas of North Central.