Land Bank holds hearing on strategic plan

The Philadelphia Land Bank held a hearing Wednesday afternoon to solicit public input on a draft of its strategic plan, which was developed by Interface Studio and a coalition of advocacy groups and released to the public earlier this month.

The hearing was held in the SEPTA board room at 1234 Market Street and lasted for two hours. During that time, 22 separate witnesses commented on various aspects of the plan.

Their comments revolved around a number of themes.

Refining goals. A number of witnesses applauded the goals outlined in the draft plan—pursuing equitable development of affordable and market-rate housing, preserving existing community gardens and creating new ones, operating the entity transparently—but encouraged the Land Bank to make those goals more specific. Where, exactly, will property be made available for affordable housing? How many privately owned vacant properties will the Land Bank move to acquire in its first year? Will the Land Bank’s data be made public? How specific will the data be?

Clarifying policy. In addition to specifics on property acquisition goals, witnesses asked for specifics on acquisition policy. Beth McConnell of the Philadelphia Association of CDCs and a number of other witnesses also asked for clarity on disposition policies; they sought to ensure that potential buyers wouldn’t be disqualified from obtaining Land Bank properties if they owned other properties with municipal tax liens that existed prior to their ownership of those properties. Others sought clarity on community involvement in Land Bank decisions.

Preserving open space. There was praise for the Land Bank’s emphasis on preserving existing community gardens, but questions about its commitment to creating new ones. Urban agriculture advocates want the Land Bank to support the consolidation of vacant lots for community gardens and farms, and to help enact long-term leases for those uses rather than the year-to-year agreements some gardens operate under.

The Land Bank also emphasizes that transferring single vacant properties as side yards to adjacent owners is a priority. One witness, Myles Vaughan, encouraged the Land Bank board to proceed with side yard transfers carefully. His group fought to maintain access to tiny Titan Park in Pennsport, he said, after finding out by chance that the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority was planning to sell it to an adjacent homeowner as a side yard.

Preventing displacement. Many of the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing were representatives of the Philadelphia Coalition of Affordable Communities, a group which was formerly organized as the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land. That group is promoting a campaign for “Development without Displacement,” and a number of its members asked the Land Bank board to respond to what they feel is a need for new affordable housing in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification.

Nora Lichtash of Women’s Community Revitalization Project, which just moved out of Northern Liberties after 17 years because of rent increases, said that affordable housing in transitioning neighborhoods should be the primary goal of the Land Bank. German Parodi said that properties redeveloped under the Land Bank need to be accessible to people with disabilities in addition to affordable to those on low and moderate incomes.

In addition, Gary Hawkins of AFSCME Local 1971, representing employees of various housing agencies, told the Land Bank board that his union had been operating since June of 2004 without a contract. Hawkins said the union supports the goals of the Land Bank and that his fellow union members are “ready, willing, and able” to help implement it—but the contracts with Local 1971 should be settled at the outset.

Those still wishing to testify can send comments to The Land Bank aims to submit a second draft of the Strategic Plan to City Council by the end of the month.  

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