I have been reading a lot on the vacant land crisis in Philly and I feel that Buffalo could and should learn a few things about how other cities address vacancy issues . This blog post is concentrated on a few policy ideas Philly has implemented that we can learn from or use as inspiration. (Note: Thank you to Jesse Kerns at Grid Mag who sent me a lot of Philly based information randomly because he knew I would love it!)
Vacant Lots in Philadelphia: Using Philly to Generate Ideas and Inspiration For Buffalo.
A little bit about Philadelphia. Philadelphia has approx. 40,000 vacant lots and about 75% of them are concentrated in one area – the north & south west of Philly. The City spends $20 million dollars on maintenance fees and have 2 million in uncollected property taxes. Sounds a little like Buffalo, huh? (A smaller version, of course!)
You can read all the details on Philly’s vacant lot issue here: http://www.gridphilly.com/grid-magazine/2013/1/14/blights-out.html
While some may not think vacant land is important in preservation – it really is. Weedy, garbage filled vacant lots are a sign of neglect which can easily devalue an area. This leads towards more demolitions, increases in vacant lots and a decline in neighborhood stability. Instead of being a weedy lot, these spaces can be reused and transformed into powerful community spaces which helps to increase investment in existing structures, excite the neighborhood and stop demolitions.
Like Buffalo, Philadelphia has a high number of vacant lots and a system that struggles to keep up, making purchasing and reusing vacant lots very difficult. According to the Grid article above, In 2012, Philly passed the land bank bill as well as instituted a “front door” policy which gives vacant lots for $1.00 to adjacent home owners. Buffalo has both of these programs however, in my experience, the “front door” policy is not officially named or broadly marketed… and the land bank passed in 2011 doesn’t appear to be off the ground yet.
To bring it down to a personal experience, Jason and I have had an application into the City to purchase a lot next door to our house since November of 2012. We are told it is approved and going through the approval process. I am not even sure if the lot will be sold to us for $1.00 or $3,000 dollars… The process is a clunky one – acquisition of a city owned parcel requires several stops in city committees and many signatures to get the approval. Over the past year or so, the process has become a bit more cleaner and easier. It is important to remember that this is a much needed process however, I am sure it could be refined to save time, money and energy.
Lastly, here is a link to an article showing the latest progress in Philly – an app that identifies vacant lots and a new coalition that has been formed to turn the vacant lots into green space. It is pretty neat! BYP is working on something sorta similar – www.preservationready.org is a website that identifies buildings at risk with a goal for people interested in the building to find information on it… however an app would be a great next step in identifying buildings, vacant lots.. etc. If we want these buildings and lots to be purchased and reinvested in – we have to find a way to make it easier to do so.