Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Potholes In My Lawn
There's a Philly story getting around and on the national news. The gist is this - a coffee shop owner and developer named Ori Feibush kept bugging the city to take better care of an adjacent abandoned lot and eventually built what looks like a patio behind his shop. He's maintaining the lot, he put a lot of money into it. The City said something to the effect of "you can't do that, we're suing you for trespassing etc.," City looks bad.
Here's my take on it, having worked for a while in affordable housing development in Philly - much of the time dealing with vacant land.
It's easy to say "This guy is trying to make things better and the city is preventing him from doing so." It's not so simple. The City is not just wantonly punishing do-gooders - they actually have a pretty good plan when it comes to vacant land, and under very difficult circumstances.
What the city is trying to do is take this vacant land which they probably inherited from a private citizen or company because somebody abandoned it or stopped paying taxes on it) and try to redevelop it in a way that's best for the economic vitality of the neighborhood and at a profit to the city and its stakeholders. It doesn't always work out that way, but fact of the matter is that it's not Feibush's call. He is right to demand better maintenance on it, but he can't put physical improvements on something that doesn't belong to him.
I looked up the properties in question on the Bureau of Revision and Taxes website. The lot appears to be three properties at 20th and Annin Streets, addressed 2002-2006. One is owned by the city (since 1976), one by a developer and one by a private indivudial. The private entities bought them in the 2000s, likely as investments for future development.
So the City has had this land for almost 40 years. The neighborhood is finally a desirable place to do development. Most likely, the City and various neighborhood associations will wait for some development plans to come from the private developers and weigh in with planning commission and neighborhood association concerns during the permitting and zoning processes. Then, the City will try to sell the land and consolidate it with whatever project might be going on. As you can tell, they aren't in the business of rushing this sort of thing.
Fortunately, over the last decade or so, the City has started to treat vacant land as more of an "asset." They maintain it much better than before, mainly to keep from draining value from adjacent properties. They have a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society that allows them to do so. Anybody who has seen a mowed lot or split rail fencing along a vacant property knows of the effect of the program. There are still big problems with land consolidation, undervaluation and red tape, but there have been vast improvements and they are considered relatively innovative nationally.
Whether the City was maintaining the 20th and Annin lot to appropriate standards, I don't know. But what I do know is that you can't just build on stuff you don't own and then throw a fit when the owner has a problem with it. This is the "you can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, you can't pick your friend's nose" thing. Just because the City doesn't clean a lot to your specifications or coffee-shop-launch timetables doesn't mean you can call yourself a martyr when you pour a new sidewalk on public property and get yelled at for it.