McQuade: No vacancy, no problem

A land bank would help solve North Philadelphia’s vacant lot problem.

Philadelphia and Detroit are frequently compared to each other in terms of the true grit of their sports teams. Yet, when looking at the two overall, another, more unfortunate similarity comes to mind: the urban decay of both cities.

There’s one thing that can stop further decay almost immediately: a public system that would serve to consolidate and sell vacant properties to those wishing to bring, as the Philly Land Bank’s website says, “publicly-owned properties back into productive reuse.”

This, in other words, is a land bank.

According to Philly Land Bank’s website, the Philadelphia Land Bank Bill, whose ordinances were sent to City Council last March, would allow the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations to “handle acquisition, maintenance and sale of vacant properties.”

Land banks control property to ensure that those who purchase real estate will build upon it and improve it, rather than “speculate” on the land, letting it sit vacant and covered in garbage as the owner waits for property rates to rise before selling the space.

With its first City Council hearing scheduled on Monday, Oct. 28, the bill seems to be one of the best hopes of revitalizing the city.  Now is the time for City Council to salvage what remains of Philadelphia and halt its possible decay.

According to a 2010 article by Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia is filled with 40,000 vacant buildings. The city’s future is often compared to Detroit’s, which hosts an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 abandoned buildings, according to an article in the New York Times last month.

It’s not difficult to realize where the PACDC is coming from, especially for Temple students.

Walk through campus or up North Broad Street and you’ll undoubtedly see dilapidated buildings that have been ignored, formerly thriving businesses and houses with tons of character that seem to be pleading for help.

Philadelphia Weekly’s database shows more than 1,900 publicly-owned vacant properties in zip code 19121 and more than 700 publicly-owned vacant properties in zip code 19122. Many are owned by organizations like the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.

Today, not only must children walk by these unpleasant and depressing buildings on their way to school, but they’re trapped inside institutions that have failed to receive the funding they deserve. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, roughly one-in-five buildings in the city are tax-delinquent. This means the portion of the property tax that should be given to local public schools is nothing more than a mere talking point.

However, the proposed land bank would take the steps necessary to transform this blight.

First of all, vacant buildings, as they function – or not – today, are often possessed by owners that do little to transform the property into a valuable asset, such as a new business or house. Even if they are not attempting to profit from these buildings, they should at least invest in the wellness of the neighborhood. Pure speculation of this manner actually works to devalue the lot’s surrounding properties.

A land bank in Philadelphia would work by only selling to buyers who are willing and able to improve the decrepit state of these abandoned buildings and lots and transform them into properties with new vitality.

Vacant properties only manufacture one thing: problems. Executive Director of PACDC Rick Sauer expressed deep concern in regards to the city’s situation.

Sauer said the land bank is not a new idea. Instead, his team has created, nurtured and developed the proposal over a period of four to five years. Sauer said Philadelphia’s City Council should not have an issue with the solidity of the bill, since it has been planned out well in advance and has proven successful in cities like St. Louis and Cleveland.

The crux of the land bank is its ability, as Sauer said, to “streamline [the process] and get properties into the hands of responsible new owners.”

The land bank will also not force the city to remain frugal or even act with generosity; Sauer said the city spends more than $20 million a year to service these vacant properties.

The city could even serve as a model for major cities, such as Detroit, that are in dire need of a panacea.

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” While Churchill was no Frank Lloyd Wright or Michelangelo, he obviously knew how critical a building is to people. It defines a community, unites families and serves as a testament of a neighborhood’s character. A Philadelphia land bank would help ensure that these buildings continue to define us. The only alternative is to let our communities decay along with our facades.

Romsin McQuade can be reached at

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