Source: Bisnow
Byline: Matthew Rothstein
Date: October 13, 2019

The city of Philadelphia is taking measures to “untangle the spaghetti” of its public land use processes, as city official Angel Rodriguez put it.

In a sit-down with local reporters, officials announced that the Philadelphia Land Bank and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority are combining their duties and staffs into the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. Rodriguez, formerly the head of the land bank, is now PHDC senior vice president of land management. The boards of both the PLB and PRA remain intact, having turned over staff and day-to-day operations to PHDC through multiple memoranda of understanding and the support of Philadelphia City Council, Rodriguez said. Gregory Heller, formerly executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, now has the title of PHDC senior vice president of community investment. The goal of the reorganization is to create a “one-stop shop” for Philadelphians to engage with the city’s acquisition, disposition and development of public land, said Rodriguez and PHDC President and CEO David Thomas, who will retain his leadership position. No jobs were lost and no office space was added or vacated, Thomas said. The PLB was established in 2012 to manage city-owned land, including the takeover of tax-delinquent properties and the decisions on what to put up for sale. But the PRA, being a state-chartered entity, has exclusive rights to some properties in the city, and members of City Council control the destiny of land in their districts through the Vacant Property Review Committee. Through the VPRC, some council members have used the unofficial policy of councilmanic prerogative to subvert competitive bidding and direct the sale of certain plots to friends and political allies. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s use of the process has made him the subject of at least one ongoing FBI investigation. The VPRC, PRA and PLB were all “stepping on each other,” Thomas said, causing confusion and frustration from citizens.

“The goal here is to take two to three more steps to making it predictable, transparent and consistent,” Rodriguez said. “There’s also legislation in council that would take it even further, and it aligns with our goals of consolidation.” That legislation, introduced by Council President Darrell Clarke and co-sponsored by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, would eliminate the VPRC and transfer its power to the PLB, and by extension PHDC. The bill passed through the Committee on Public Property Oct. 1, and Rodriguez told Bisnow he expects it to pass a full council vote. Mayor Jim Kenney has expressed support for the bill, PlanPhilly reports. If and when it becomes law, the PRA and PLB boards will still hold public meetings over every land sale and the goal is for the backroom dealings of the VPRC to be no more. Staff of the new PHDC have already begun outreach to educate the population at large on the changes, especially those in the low-income neighborhoods of North Philly that contain the lion’s share of city-owned vacant lots. “We are aware that the disposition process is very confusing,” Rodriguez said.