Wanna Buy a Vacant Lot?

The Redevelopment Authority needs to focus on building.

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Jul. 13, 2010

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One of the 40,000 vacant lots in the city

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.

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Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. Denice Wtikowski said... on Jul 16, 2010 at 09:32AM

I am wondering if you can do a story about my lot! I have been maintaining two lots for over 5 years now. I know someone bought one of them and the city owns the other. The owner of one said I could have a garden on his side. I've had a garden for over 3.5 years on both lots. I have been dealing with trash and crap for years. I won 3rd place in best individual garden last year through PHS. I just really want to know if I have any rights and if not I'd like to publish a story on the lot if the guy tears it down before the end of the season... City Gardens just nominated it again and the owner cut a tree down but left enough space for me to run a hose to the garden so I thought we were cool... But apparently he's not cool cause he saw the judges go in and doesn't want anyone on the property! It's crazy. Interested???”

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2. Ree said... on Aug 16, 2010 at 06:22AM

“Hello Denice,
I want to own a vacant lot in my area. Could you tell me if there are any programs that help you obtain a lot from the city or you have to pay everything out of pocket and if you do, could you give me an estimate on how much it would cost me to buy a lot in Philadelphia? Thank You!”

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3. Mylot said... on Jan 5, 2012 at 01:16AM

“anyone who takes care of a lot for some years and don't as the city,state,or any company for money or a helping hand should be the first person to have this lot.It takes time and hard work to mantain these lots. You have grass in the summer & show in the winter along with people letting thier dogs run lose. Before any lot is sold someone from the city should come out to if someone has been taking care of the and find out first if that person/people would like to have it before they go money hunger. Be fair and let the ones who has takiing care of it contiune to do so.”

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4. Denice Witkowski said... on Feb 17, 2012 at 08:58AM

“Hello folks,
I just want to update that lot experience. The one lot, so called privately owned, that I was talking about in 2010 is still being used. I forgot about this post and came across it again today. I was told by a guy who claims he owns the lot that I could resume my project. Once I started taking out the plants and putting up a divider he stopped by and said, "you don't have to do that, you can still use the lot." After several attempts with an emails address I had I tried to state those words. He never responded. The lot is still occupied with plants and will be again this year. I have been taking care of two lots at the end of my street and want to make them into a community garden, any thoughts? Does anyone have any more information of how to obtain legal rights to staying on these properties that have been abandoned?? Thanks happy Urban Farming folks...”

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5. Joe Brennan said... on Aug 23, 2012 at 03:35PM

“With 40,000 empty lots in Philadelphia and yet the city continues to clear cut woods for more lots. Please watch

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6. Lawrence said... on Oct 8, 2012 at 02:51PM

“I want to clean a vacant lot and use it for gardening. How do I go about that


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7. Melvina Baldwin Morris said... on Dec 5, 2012 at 09:39AM

“I have a lot in the germantown section of Philadelphia. It was given to me years ago. I have no need for the lot and would love to see it as a garden. It was once a nice garden but the lady Mrs. Williams didnot want it when I offered it to her for free. I want to donate or give the lot away, so some org. can make a nice garden in that area. How do I go about giving this lot away. I donot want to sell, I want to give it to an org,

I can be reached at 215 844-4121 Melvina B, Morris

Thank You”

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8. Isaac Harley said... on Aug 17, 2015 at 01:54PM

“This house 4829 Sydenham Sts. 19141 Phila., Pa. is now gone. Tell me how to go about getting it. Ihave started to take care of it. Money wise ?”


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