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On April 22, the Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP) will hold an educational forum to help ordinary Philadelphians understand the intricacies of the Land Bank law.
For WCRP— a Northern Liberties-based Community Development Corporation—the forum is yet another step in the quest to make the Land Bank a reality. As a member organization in a coalition called the Campaign To Take Back Vacant Land, WCRP succeeded on that front. But while they won the Land Bank battle, the war is far from over, and in some ways, it’s just beginning.
Currently operating under the guidance of a temporary board of directors, the Philadelphia Land Bank’s eventual mission will be to acquire and sell tens of thousands of disjointed and vacant Philadelphia parcels for development. That’s no small task, given the history of bureaucracy and red tape that has prevented it from happening thus far.
The Land Bank is supposed to streamline the development process, and to do so with a transparent strategic plan that includes goals for affordable housing. Will those goals be met? That remains to be seen. But if past is prologue, and the failed goal setting strategy for minority participation on city-funded construction stands as an example, then I remain doubtful.
But the idea of a Philadelphia Land Bank has survived much. It survived a political brawl between Councilwoman Maria Quinones, who crafted the original bill, and Council President Darrell Clarke, who won the right to give Council more say over the process. It survived the skepticism of community groups who saw Mayor Nutter sign it into law in January.
In a year we’ll see if the Land Bank can survive implementation, like Philadelphia’s neighborhoods survived decades of blight.
In 2008, when neighbors near the offices of WCRP saw the conditions in their neighborhood, they knew they had to do something.
“A bunch of trash, a bunch of old vacant lots, a bunch of empty buildings, broken bottles, all kinds of drug [paraphernalia]. You know, things in the lots, needles, condoms. It was just really, really raggedy…”
That’s what Constance Morrow observed when she lived Northern Liberties. Morrow joined with WCRP around the time she and other neighbors began noticing something else in addition to the trash.
“New development started coming,” Morrow said.
WCRP began mapping the area. What they found was fascinating.
“So it’s 2008, and it turns out that one out of four pieces of land in this really small area of Philly was vacant,” said Jill Feldstein, Organizing Director for the Women’s Community Revitalization Project. “It pretty much touches every block in the neighborhood, and then there are some blocks where [it’s all] vacancy.
“If you add it all up, it’s astounding,” she said. “If you put all this land end to end to end it’s the equivalent of having like 79 Eagles stadiums of vacant land in a very very small area of Philadelphia. Again, this [was] only 150 square blocks.”
The other thing neighbors were talking to WCRP about was the rapid development in the community. “What used to be the Schmidt’s Brewery turned into the Piazza,” Feldstein said. “[There was] all the development that was happening with Temple University, and then of course, like, Fishtown. So people talked to us about what they perceived to be these two problems: A tremendous amount of vacant land, but also a lot of pressure from surrounding neighborhoods that was rapidly increasing prices.”
The two trends seemed to be random, Feldstein said. You could have a vacant, trash-strewn lot on one corner, and $500,000 condos a few blocks away.
“If you don’t know the neighborhood you’d think, ‘How can that be happening in exactly the same neighborhood?’” Feldstein said. “And these are the two biggest problems—disinvestment and dumping and gentrification pressure, and that was how we hit on the idea of the Land Bank. Because people really felt like we needed to do something.”
Years of work yielded mixed results. The survey by the Women’s Community Revitalization Project became a key element of the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land’s successful quest to get language into the Land Bank legislation that is supposed to benefit neighborhoods. That language includes a strategic plan based on census data analysis.
That analysis is supposed to evaluate the need and availability for affordable or mixed-income housing; economic development that creates jobs for community residents; community facilities that provide needed services to residents… community open space; and any additional core beneficial land uses that may be identified by the Land Bank.
But in the years since the battle for a Land Bank began, rents in gentrifying neighborhoods like Northern Liberties increased to the point where residents like Morrow were forced to move.
She now lives near Germantown and Dauphin, on a blighted block that should have 35 houses, but only has three.
One can only hope that the Land Bank will bring better outcomes for people whose neighborhoods are undergoing rapid development. Morrow certainly does.
“I just think that this WCRP with this Land Bank, it will empower our neighborhoods,” she said in an interview. “It would be less violence. It would bring some of the drugs down, the graffiti down, I mean we would, I just could see a change … I would like my part of the city look just like the mayor’s [or] city council’s. I would like my neighborhood to look just like their neighborhood.”
I would like that, too. But then, there are real economic forces at work—realities that can’t be escaped.
Even the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, which has built affordable housing, and pushed to get the Land Bank to do right by the poor, is staring those realities in the face. The CDC will soon have to move out of its offices in rapidly gentrifying Northern Liberties.
The owner is selling the building.