On Monday, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority gathered a small handful of reporters to announce the unofficial ("beta" was the word) launch of the city's so-called "Front Door" for purchasing city-owned vacant land. The announcement has been a long time coming. When Mayor Nutter took office in 2008, his administration inherited, along with 9,000 vacant city-owned parcels, a tangled mess of policies, procedures and vested interests (see our story "Property Purgatory,").
The administration began reassessing its inventory, and the mayor appointed a task force to come up with a new comprehensive policy that would be easier to use, more fair and — that holy grail of progressive public policy — transparent.
It has taken nearly two years to unveil the results. The delay can be ascribed not to a lack of hard work, but perhaps to the challenges posed by the entrenched interests and territoriality that made the system so messy in the first place. That includes the sometimes-conflicting goals of different city offices and an institutionalized requirement that City Council approve all sales, placing great power in the hands of district Council members.
The new policy provides an outline of the different purposes for which vacant land can be bought, including non-"market" uses like side yards, urban agriculture and community-development projects. Prospective buyers can, as of this week, visit a new (beta, people) website, search for city-owned vacant property on a cool map, apply to buy it and track the status of their applications. The online map alone, showing the location and owning agency of some 9,000 vacant properties, is a huge step and deserves praise.
But behind that Front Door lurk the same bogeymen. When it comes to Council members' disproportionate control over individual transactions, the new plan is not "intended to tackle that issue in any fashion," as PRA director John Carpenter told reporters.
That's not his fault — the city charter requires that many sales be approved by Council — but there are signs that the administration is reluctant to open the door too far. The announcement included no specific reforms to policies within two of the biggest three land-holding agencies, the Department of Public Property and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. And while the new web system lets you apply to purchase land and track your progress, it doesn't let you track others' applications, raising more transparency issues. If the goal is transparency, let's not settle for a beta version.