[ red tape ]
In 24 years at Second and Cecil B. Moore, Santiago Principe has seen Kensington transform around him. He watched factories close — he himself used to work at an old munitions factory a few blocks away — and families flee once-vibrant row-house blocks. He saw gangs, drugs and crime take over, and residents grow fearful of venturing out at night. More recently, he's seen a scattering of gentrifiers move in, filling new, modern houses built on long-vacant lots.
One thing he thought he might never see was the deed to his side lot, on which he'd pinned his dreams of success as a restaurateur and which he says the city had promised to sell to him for $1, in 1988.
Back then, Principe and his wife, Margarita, had agreed to clean up and acquire the lot, along with the next one over, both havens for short-dumpers and drug dealers. At first, he wanted to plant a garden; later, he hoped to build a roasting house for lechón, the Puerto Rican-style coal-roasted pig he serves at his restaurant, Lechonera Principe. He carted away 12 dumpsters of trash, and eventually received right of entry for the properties. But each time he tried to formalize the transaction, the price changed, and so did the rules.
About 10 years ago, he says, the city relented, telling him the lot at 239 Cecil B. Moore Ave. was his for $800. "I said, 'OK.' But then they told me, 'No, there's a problem,'" he explained in Spanish. "Then they sent me a letter saying I would have to pay $1,500, and I said, 'OK.' Then they said, 'No, you have to fill out more documents.'" The exchange dragged on for months, then years. "Then the officer sent a letter saying it would have to be $12,000. And they said, 'You have to pay the money quickly or we will sell it to someone else.'"
It's hard to pin down the amount of paperwork drawn up and time spent — by city officials, by Principe himself and by the nonprofit Finanta, which has been advocating for him — on this, by all accounts, not terribly desirable 810-square-foot tract of dirt and rubble. And it's not clear why this particular lot took so very long to procure.
What is evident is that Principe was mired in a dysfunctional system that has left an estimated 9,000 properties languishing under city ownership. It's a system in which transactions stall indefinitely, prices can vary wildly (and change at the last minute) and numerous city departments can play a role in processing (or obstructing) land disposition.
This week, the city outlined the long-awaited "Front Door," a single point of purchase for vacant properties owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), the Department of Public Property and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. While the associated website will make it easier to enter the process, Principe's odyssey illustrates how circuitous that process can be even once a purchase is in the works — and how badly reform is needed.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who eventually helped with the acquisition, describes Principe as the type of person the city should be assisting, not stymieing. "He's been taking care of the lot. It's for a small-business expansion. It was touted as a new business in the American Street Empowerment Zone, as one of our success stories."
The Front Door, which is accessible through PRA's website, will provide some clarity for prospective land purchasers, Sánchez believes, but since sales will still be handled by the various city departments, complications and confusion will remain. To solve issues like Principe's, she says, the real cure is a citywide land bank to bring all those properties under the purview of a single agency, with transparent processes and a unified mission.
The Front Door, she says, "is the first step, but it still doesn't get us to that bigger conversation." That is: "What's the goal? Do you want to redevelop neighborhoods, or do you want to make money?"
Vacant land is a city problem, but it could also be asset, she notes, creating space for affordable housing, urban farms and job-generating businesses like, say, Lechonera Principe. Yet redevelopment has not been a clear goal in the city's vacant land policy in recent years.
After Mayor Michael Nutter took office in 2008, he declared an end to discounts and giveaways, offering city properties only for "fair market value." That crushed the opportunities for corruption that had existed during Mayor John Street's administration, but created fresh hurdles for would-be purchasers.
Since then, Sánchez says, her office has been so bogged down with vacant-land issues that she brought on a staff lawyer primarily to handle such matters. And the cessation of old vacant-land programs, such as the side-yard program Principe was involved in, left plenty of people in limbo.
"A lot of people were in this pipeline or thought they were in this pipeline," she says.
Take Norris Square Neighborhood Project (NSNP), a community organization renowned for its six urban gardens, called Las Parcelas, ranging from three to 20 lots apiece.
"We started gardening on this land when the city couldn't give it away, literally. Nobody wanted this land," says executive director Reed Davaz McGowan. "It was an area that people didn't want to go into, and having vacant lots was dangerous. They were just filled with garbage. There was a lot of violence, crime, prostitution and drugs, and that was the heart of where it was happening."
NSNP began gardening more than 25 years ago, and has been working to formalize its ownership of Las Parcelas since 1996. Now the nonprofit owns about 90 percent of the lots; the process of acquiring the rest has been dragging on since 2002.
"There was a strong commitment [from the city] to getting us to acquire the land. However, that commitment wasn't always written down or followed through on," she says. With the PRA, "We might not have gotten calls back for months. We might never have gotten a call back. It's a huge, complex, crazy process." And it's a moving target: NSNP would make progress, but then procedures would change.
Part of the problem is simply operational. But part of it, some say, has to do with policy — in particular the commitment to "fair market value," appraised based on three comparable recent sales. Sánchez and others say appraisals in Kensington can be drawn on so-called comparables in nearby but pricier neighborhoods like Northern Liberties and Fishtown, generating inflated values. Many question what market value even means when there's virtually no market — for example, in the case of a certain pair of undersize lots at Second and Cecil B. Moore.
Kevin Gillen, vice president at Econsult Corp., which just finished developing the city's new plan for valuing its vacant land, says, "most of it doesn't have much economic value. ... Fifteen percent of properties do have some value." He puts the value of the average city-owned vacant parcel at $10 per square foot, far lower than citywide average of $20 to $30 per square foot.
In Principe's case, "the city was more interested in doing an appraisal and charging the appraisal value, regardless of whether it was market value or not," says Luis Mora, president of Finanta, the lending and business-assistance organization that works with Principe. Mora says that, at the time negotiations were taking place, a nearly identical lot was listed for sale just around the corner for $5,000 — and there were no buyers.
Moreover, charging market value means the price remains unknown until the very end of what could be a multiyear process. "That has been a real problem," says Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. "They'll say, 'Well, this property is worth 'X,' but we'll do an appraisal closer to the closing.' And then a property that was supposedly worth $2,000 is valued at $10,000."
The Front Door, and a price list that will soon be attached to it, could resolve that — but it leaves other issues unaddressed, Sauer says. "The different departments still have different processes. They have different legal requirements. They have different staffs. They have different missions and motivations." That's something the Front Door won't solve. "You need a land bank to help achieve that."
In the meantime, says Mora, "It's who you have as a connection in the city — that's the way it works."