The Redevelopment Authority needs to focus on building.
Shamed by 40,000 vacant lots around the city, Philadelphia is a postcard for urban malaise. Garbage and filth surround bums, crack dealers and whores plying their trades in unkempt glass and needle-filled yards. We call such areas slums, but the same load of rubbish has a nasty way of seeping out of City Hall, down Market Street to the Redevelopment Authority.
Charged with gobbling up blight, jump-starting development and facilitating neighborhood revitalization, the RDA finds people wanting to build on those rancid city-owned lots. Executive Director Terry Gillen says the RDA has moved 322 parcels of land since January 2009, out of more than 3,400 available.
Its progress is worth reporting, as incremental as it is.
But all is not well with the agency these days. Even as Gillen’s regime labors to mop out the sludge left over from Mayor John Street’s administration, the twin plagues of bureaucratic gridlock and petty distraction threaten to drown the RDA’s reform efforts when they’re only just getting started.
When Gillen was appointed to her position in June 2008, City Controller Alan Butkovitz started working on an audit of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), a Street-era program that provided $87 million—split between the city and its 10 Councilmanic districts—to acquire vacant land. The audit, completed in November 2009, discovered a jumble of records at the RDA about as organized as the trash-strewn lots in question.
“The records were unauditable,” Deputy City Controller Harvey Rice says. “We had to create records before we could audit them. It was a massive undertaking.”
The city froze the NTI funds during the audit when it came to light that no one had any idea how much of the cash had already been spent. In response to the abysmal record keeping, the controller recommended the RDA totally revamp its methods. Gillen promises to make things right, even though she says doing so will take a year.
On the plus side, the NTI money has been unfrozen and is ready to start trickling back into the neighborhoods.
“I’m always for money, now that we’re talking about NTI I’m looking forward to trying to spend money to service our area,” says Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who heads the Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless. “We’re trying to do what we can to spend every dollar we can possibly get our hands on to continue our agenda.”
And Council definitely has one, if not many. This spring, Council and the RDA had it out over who would get the final say on approving developments. Council won, as they usually do in these kinds of things.
The latest RDA battle is over land at 17th and Vine streets. Developer Stephen Klein bought the land in 1987 for $3.7 million and ostensibly had five years to build something, which he didn’t accomplish. Two decades later, the RDA decided enough was enough and moved to take back the parcel, but after all that time, Klein finally found a buyer: The Church of Latter Day Saints had signed up to build a $68 million temple, which was projected to create 300 construction jobs.
The RDA relented and said it would allow the sale to go through if it could take 25 percent of the proceeds, an unprecedented demand considering the land had already been sold to Klein at fair-market value.
Klein was confused. “It just doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “We’re sitting here in this time of dire economic need, there’s little or no construction going on in the city. I haven’t noticed any cranes, have you?”
“We’re talking to the owner Stephen Klein and trying to see if we can work something out with him,” Gillen says. “It’s a project that the mayor wants to do and I’m confident it will get done.”
Huh? The dispute has reached the point of incoherence. If everybody wants the Mormons in town so badly, just let them build the fucking temple.
Results are what this city needs, and the 322 land parcels sold, a record-keeping overhaul and unfrozen NTI funds are a good start, if tenuous. Let’s keep it going. Forget the arguing and posturing and get more building done.
The 40,000 abandoned properties, on which the city spends $20 million a year maintaining, results in a 6.5 to 20 percent resale value drop for homes on the same block. It’s an environmental, economical, domestic nightmare.
The Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land is a coalition of local activist groups with a common goal of tackling Philadelphia’s immense property problem. Many of the parcels are owned by the city, but the process for acquiring them is complicated, to say the least.
More than 12,000 of Philly's vacant lots are publicly owned and controlled by various agencies. With parcels as thin as 15 feet wide, buying sufficient square footage for development from multiple city agencies is a near impossible challenge for which the city has yet to find a comprehensive solution.