Philly land bank moves forward, but what about historic preservation?


Vacant row houses on Cudmore Street
Many vacant properties in the city of Philadelphia have abandoned structures on them. Many of these structures could be profitably recycled, but unless city land bank legislation includes language encouraging preservation, their likely fate will be demolition.

News broke earlier this week that Philly’s land bank to deal with the City’s vacant and abandoned properties has moved forward in recent weeks.  After years of debate, the state legislation that gives local municipalities the power to bank land was passed and signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett this past October.  Since then, the Nutter administration has been moving the process forward, working with the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. (PHDC) to make it happen.

For those not familiar, a land bank can be an especially powerful economic development tool.  It is already used by over 75 different communities across the country, mostly in the Rust Belt.  The gist behind a land bank is it allows cities to acquire or group parcels in a strategic, clear and concise manner, in an effort to facilitate larger and more attractive development opportunities.

abandoned houses in Baltimore
These Baltimore rowhouses were felled to make way for new affordable housing. It’s quite likely that they could have been profitably rebuilt for that purpose. Photos by Kim Morrison for The Baltimore Sun.

But land banking really flexes its muscle by allowing municipalities to acquire real property or interests and discharge liens and other claims, charges or fines in the process.  In Philly, this is especially important, as private property tax delinquency is seen as a major obstacle to neighborhood redevelopment.

So it is encouraging that the legislation is moving forward; the more tools the City has to tackle blight and tax delinquency the better. But  what seems to be missing from the conversation are the abandoned buildings that would come under control of the land bank.  Will the new bill consider the importance of historic preservation and include language to protect buildings against demolition?  As of now, it doesn’t appear so.

The Rust Belt, Detroit in particular, offers lessons on this issue. Civic leaders often target land bank properties for wholesale demolition – it’s seen as the easy solution when under pressure to do something quick. And the properties are just sitting there waiting to be picked off. It’s a consequence that isn’t necessarily intended but nonetheless occurs in cities where preservation language is not included in land bank legislation.

This would be a shame if the land bank led to massive demolition of blocks and blocks of beautiful row houses and abandoned warehouses in North, South and West Philly, buildings full of so much character that would make Rust Belt counterparts in the Midwest pretty jealous.  Not to mention their enormous economic development potential and the fact that historic preservation outperforms new construction in creating economic activity. Or that per capita, preservation is one of the highest job-generating economic development tools available.

So we hope the Nutter administration is on top of this and adds historic preservation language to the land bank bill to avoid massive demolition of large swaths of Philly.  If there is one thing Philly can learn from the Detroits of the world, it’s this.

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Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land tackles city land bank bill