Good land: Councilman Burgess sees promise in vacant lots

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City Councilman Ricky Burgess hates vermin and drug deals -- and who doesn't. But when the scourges are fostered by decrepit properties, something can be done. He says problem-riddled empty lots and abandoned, vacant buildings are the No. 1 source of complaints from residents of his district, which includes Homewood, East Liberty and East Hills.

That's why Mr. Burgess is making a case for establishing a city land bank, which would make it easier for Pittsburgh to acquire such dormant properties and connect them with individuals or groups that can turn them into side yards, urban gardens or sites for new construction.

In Homewood alone, 2,300 parcels sit idle, accounting for 44 percent of all of the properties. Another 1,300 houses, 30 percent of the neighborhood's total, were vacant, according to a report last year by the University of Pittsburgh. Citywide, there are more than 14,000 abandoned properties.

Despite the huge scale of the problem, earlier efforts have failed to get much traction. Although the city does take over some tax-delinquent properties each year, Mr. Burgess wants more seizures to happen more quickly.

He has the right idea in proposing legislation to create a land bank. The bank would acquire, sell or donate properties, which could transform entire neighborhoods. But the city must be careful not to commit to more than it can afford in tough times.

Because Pittsburgh presumably would assume liability for properties while they are in transition, the cost could be enormous. Mr. Burgess' proposal would require hiring a manager, assistant manager and support staff to run the program, but it is too soon to be specific about staffing.

Councilman Burgess has started an important conversation. When members discuss the measure on Monday, they must be sure they don't promise more than the city can deliver.

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