Shouting it from the blacktop: Take back vacant land!

Community activists from the city’s First Councilmanic District turned out for a March 27 to discuss managing vacant land in Philadelphia — a problem that continues to blemish the city’s effort to look sharp.

Amid a sea of yellow — supporters of the Take Back Vacant Land Coalition wore matching shirts — representatives of community groups spent the evening at the Circle of Hope Church, 2009 Frankford Ave., presenting their cases for passage of a land bank ordinance that recently was introduced in City Council.

The bill, presented on Feb. 2 by Council members Maria Quinones-Sanchez (D-7th dist.), Curtis Jones Jr. (D-4th dist.) and Bobby Henon (D-6th dist.), would establish a land bank to permit the city to consolidate the ownership of “publicly owned surplus property” — in this case, many of the more than 40,000 plots of city-owned vacant land in Philadelphia — into one entity that would enable the city an easier way to manage and sell the tracts.

The activists at last week’s meeting offered their suggestions to City Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents the first district. Although there is broad support of the proposed ordinance, the meeting was called as a way for residents and community groups to explain ways they hope the bill would be altered.

Activists especially pushed for additional amendments, among them an assurance that residents would be part of any future board that might manage the land bank.

“That’s what this is about today, making sure your voices are heard,” said Pastor Joshua Grace of Circle of Hope, noting that the bill is “good but there is room for improvement.”

Others at the session also want some of the land set aside for community spaces, such as open-air parks, and affordable housing.

“We need a process, a mechanism for community groups that want to do something with that land to get their hands on it,” said Jeff Hornstein, president of the Queens Village Neighbors Association and a former candidate for Squilla’s Council seat.

To illustrate the point, some residents shared stories — of both success and frustration — about dealing with vacant-land issues.

Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, talked about the “spooky garden,” a lot at Fourth and George streets that neighbors have tended and for many years used as a place for Halloween celebrations.

Last year the city posted the lot — and others throughout Philly — for sale on Craigslist without notifying locals. Residents worked with the office of City Councilman Darrell Clarke (D-5th dist.) to remove the listing for the garden lot.

“It requires politics and will if you’re going to have this kind of land success story going on all over the city,” said Ruben.

On the other end of the spectrum, Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, shared stories of lots throughout his community that have been reclaimed or sold by their long-absent owners, but only after locals had cleaned and greened the plots and inadvertently increased their sale values for those owners who’d promptly sell the land.

“We could do vacant-land horror stories all night,” he said.

One of the most notable, he said, occurred at Emerald Street Park at Dauphin and Emerald streets. The community had turned about nine vacant lots into beautiful, open green space.

But last year, four of the lots within the park were sold to a realty company. which, If those lots were developed, it would destroy the park and years of work, he insisted.

Carpineta said he’s working with the realty company to make sure that doesn’t happen.

With sensible legislation like the land banking bill, Carpeneta said, communities like East Kensington could see these vacant spots — holes in the community — turned into sustainable, usable places for all neighbors.

“We know our neighborhood is already growing . . . but it’s an incomplete neighborhood,” he said. “Where is a policy that shows consideration for that?”

Councilman Squilla said he appreciated the passion on display during the evening. However, he said, a number of things must be worked out before the bill can be passed; specifically, he pointed to the structure of any board that would be created to manage the land bank.

He also noted that the Craigslist idea, which could have taken land from neighbors in the NLNA, was well-received in City Hall. But Squilla said he could find no one who knew what would happen to land sold on those Internet sales — perhaps opening it up to speculators and other absentee landlords.

“If we leave it up to the city to do this, it will fail,” said Squilla. “We need folks like you to let us know that you don’t want these properties to be sold on Craigslist.”

While it might be some time before the bill is voted on in Council, Squilla said he supports it and will work to ensure the inclusion of neighborhood input on what becomes of vacant land.

ldquo;You build a neighborhood with people. The officials work to support the people, not the other way around,” said Squilla. ••

Star managing editor Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com