5 Questions: Now That We Have a Land Bank, How’s It Going to Change the City?

Anne Fadullon of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia talks about how the new legislation could remake the landscape.

Anne Fadullon

Anne Fadullon

Mayor Nutter’s signing of a new “land bank” bill on Monday was greeted with applause from the development community. Anne Fadullon, president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, was among those offering praise. She’s hoping the new process will allow redevelopment of the city’s blighted areas without running roughshod over neighborhood interests that often find themselves in opposition to big new plans.

“I think really what’s encouraging about the process that’s happened so far is it’s really brought groups of people and entities together,” she said. “We’ve all kind of had to sit around the table and look at each other’s different perspectives.”

Fadullon talked to Philly Mag this week about the new land bank legislation, why it’s needed, and how it might remake the city’s landscape. Some excerpts:

The City Council has passed, and Mayor Nutter has signed, legislation that creates a new land bank for Philadelphia, with the idea that it transforms old blighted properties and neglected properties into something more useful. What is new about this process — why weren’t old processes for doing this working?

When you’re in a city that’s been in existence for a long time and agencies have been in existence for a long time, processes can begin to get bloated. There tend to be things added to a process because this or that particular project needed that, and when you have administration and staff turnover, steps tend to get added that were there [originally] for a specific project or purpose.

I also just think there were different agencies doing different things …  we’ve got three different processes going on and beyond just the Redevelopment Authority, the Department of Public Property and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, which owns properties, you’ve also got other city agencies who are involved in these processes, and the whole thing starts to become this kind of monster.

So I think the land bank is great to get the properties under one system, but also it gives us a real opportunity to re-create the process and say, “You know what, let’s not necessarily maintain those bloated processes but let’s make something that’s really much more efficient for today’s world.”

What’s this going to look like at the operational level? If there’s a piece of property, say, how’s it going to enter the land bank and how’s it going to end up exiting the land bank?

That’s exactly what the next step of this work is over the course of the next 12 months. We now have the legislation that allows us to establish a land bank. Now we have to figure out, okay, what do we do? And figure out how to get this thing operational.

Ideally what happens is that the properties that are controlled by those three agencies we’ve spoken about transfer their properties into this one entity so that there’s one point of entry into the system. And someone is assigned to watch your property or your request through the whole system so that at the back end, you come out of this process in a relatively short period of time, but also in a way where it’s transparent — that you can follow every step of the process. And then there’s some strategic thought into how we’re both acquiring and disposing of property within the city.

Is the ultimate aim here to renovate and restore individual properties, or is it to create one sizable piece of property or sizable properties for redevelopment?

I think that really depends on how you enter into the system. I think it’s a combination of both. I really think that this is an opportunity for individual properties in that a lot of the public inventory is individual properties, one-off, two-offs, where the interest is: Can somebody get it for a side yard? Can a neighbor and her group get together and say, there are these three lots we’d really like to be urban agriculture, or we’d like them to be a community garden space for our community, or we really need a playground, or whatever the community needs.

Then I think one of the big pieces of this is that it allows us to strategically acquire properties that are vacant and tax delinquent for a long period of time, and combine them with currently publicly owned properties and create that larger development site where larger development would make sense and you could really revitalize the same area and get some redevelopment happening in the community.

What happens if you have a whole lot of blighted properties but you’ve got one good owner and one good property on that block? Are there going to be mechanisms for addressing that sort of situation? 

I think then you’ve got to sit down and figure out what is the best scenario to happen in there, and that is tricky, because you want to figure out not only what is the best for that individual but for that block, the rest of that neighborhood, what’s best for Philadelphia. I think you’ve got to look at that. We need to be a little creative. … There’s a tendency to get stuck in the rut of, “OK, well this is how we do development.” And we’re going to have to look at some creative means of how we deal with those kinds of situations.

The number I’ve seen is that there are potentially 40,000 pieces of property in the city that might eventually be governed by the land bank. It seems to me that there’s an opportunity to maybe even remake a tremendous part of the city. If this goes the way folks are hoping it goes, what does Philadelphia look like 20 years from now? What parts are different and how are they going to be different?

I think land banking adds another tool to the toolbox. If someone said to me, “Here’s a hammer, build me a house,” I would say to them, “I can’t build a house with just a hammer, but I also can’t build a house without a hammer.” And I think the land bank is just a tool in a toolbox. So I don’t know necessarily that it of and by itself is going to be this big, transformative thing.

But then as far as the development landscape, I think you realistically see an expansion. We’ve already seen an expansion of what we call Center City and those communities. I think you’ll continue to see that kind of pressure spread even further out.

My ideal 20 years from now is that we don’t have as much vacant land, that we have a lot of that land put back into productive use. That both the growing population and the existing population, that we have a diverse city, and that all of our demographics look better. That our education team looks better, that our unemployment numbers look better, that our median income looks better, and it looks better not because we brought in new residents that are more educated and have a higher income level, but that we lifted the whole city up.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.