Land Bank Deal in Philadelphia City Council Could Make Underutilized Properties Available for Redevelopment

December 2013Articles In the Zone

Thousands of underutilized properties in the City of Philadelphia could be made available for redevelopment in the future, thanks to a compromise that ensured passage of the Philadelphia Land Bank bill. The Land Bank bill is intended to streamline the process for getting blighted properties out of the hands of absentee owners (or the City itself) and into the hands of private developers and Community Development Corporations for coherent redevelopment in line with City and neighborhood planning efforts. A prior discussion of an earlier version of the bill is here.

The compromise deal worked out by City Council President Darrell Clarke and the primary sponsor of the bill, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, focuses on the role that Philadelphia City Council members will have in approving transfers of abandoned properties. Council approved the addition of the amendments to the bill, and voted in favor of final passage in Council’s last meeting of 2013.

The amended language includes a continuing role for the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC) advisory board favored by Council President Clarke, but with additional mechanisms to make the VPRC process more transparent, such as publishing meeting agendas and transcripts online and requiring advance public notice of VPRC meetings. Further, Council members will not be required to give written consent, pursuant to the longstanding Philadelphia tradition of councilmanic prerogative, for each parcel to be acquired by the Land Bank – instead, Council’s approval role will be limited to an annual review of the Land Bank’s strategic plan and sign-off on the Land Bank’s expenditures.

Some Land Bank proponents had argued that the inclusion of the VPRC as an additional layer in the process will perpetuate existing delays in the disposition and acquisition of vacant and abandoned properties; Council President Clarke and his supporters had argued that the VPRC will provide necessary oversight for the appointed Land Bank board. It remains to be seen, now that the Land Bank is law, how quickly the City of Philadelphia will be able to get the necessary machinery up and running (including budgetary support for the coming fiscal year), and whether and to what degree the system contemplated by the amended bill will actually speed up the process by which vacant and abandoned properties can be acquired from the City by private developers and CDCs for redevelopment and restoration to the City’s tax rolls.

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