Pittsburgh council passes land bank idea

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Pittsburgh City Council on Monday voted to create the Pittsburgh Land Bank, the culmination of weeks of rancorous debate and compromise.

Eight council members supported the land bank; Councilwoman Darlene Harris cast the lone no vote.

The bill, introduced by Councilwoman Deb Gross in mid-January, became the subject of several heated community forums. Proponents called it a useful tool to ameliorate blight and speed the disposition of city land. But others worried about giving an independent body authority over city land sales. The land bank, like the city, will be empowered to acquire land when owners fall more than a year behind on property taxes.

Members struck a compromise last week with a series of amendments that would keep city council's oversight of land sales for at least two years. It also added additional protections for owner-occupied properties, expanded opportunities for community input, and expanded the board to allow the three council members with the most vacant land a greater say in who served on it.

The bill now heads for Mayor Bill Peduto's desk, and he is expected to sign it. He supported the legislation, though it was his hope that elected officials would be taken out of the process.

For community leaders on the front lines of fighting blight, the land bank marks a step in the right direction. Aggie Brose of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. has been working to rebuild the community for four decades, assembling tax-delinquent and city-owned land to build over 100 houses in the western section of Garfield. But in that quest, the eastern part of the neighborhood slid into decline, "into quicksand," she said.

"I don't have another 40 years to do the east of Garfield," Ms. Brose, 79, said. "I know what a good neighborhood is, and I just want to give that back before I'm gone. I don't want children walking through blight."

The land bank will allow the city and community groups to assemble blighted parcels more quickly, attracting private investors to build homes, she said.

Ernie Hogan, executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, has been working on land-banking for around a half-dozen years, when he became part of a land recycling task force appointed by then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. The task force recommended a land bank, but the city couldn't create one until a state law, passed in 2012, enabled it.

But there's still hard work that lies ahead. Mr. Hogan said he doesn't expect the land bank to be functioning until next year. A board must be appointed, and policies and procedures -- which will drive how the land bank operates -- have to be formulated. Seed funding is expected to be provided by foundation communities, but where the land bank will get its revenue has yet to be determined.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published April 14, 2014 12:22 PM

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