Lots of growth: The land bank could boost city neighborhoods

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By the numbers, the city of Pittsburgh is its own worst slumlord. The government’s vast holdings include an estimated 7,900 parcels that are vacant — some with deteriorating buildings, others just empty lots. The city can’t afford the upkeep, but bureaucracy makes selling them difficult.

This long-festering problem is not unique to Pittsburgh, but thanks to state legislation adopted in 2012, there is a new tool in Pennsylvania for tackling it: a land bank.

Councilwoman Deborah Gross proposed creation of this quasi-governmental agency that could take control of properties, manage and sell them. Blight is the target, but critics decried it as a “land grab,” with councilman Ricky Burgess leading the fear-mongering by telling residents “the land bank could take your house.”

That overblown response might have been avoided if there had been more widespread community participation before Ms. Gross introduced her legislation. Nonetheless, public hearings in recent weeks led to a better bill, which received support last Wednesday from seven of the nine council members.

Working first with Councilman Corey O’Connor, Ms. Gross corrected some deficiencies, and Mayor Bill Peduto and other council members wrangled a series of other amendments. The land bank’s board, originally proposed with seven members, would have nine, with three chosen by the mayor, three by council and three community members selected by the other six appointees.

The bill contains significant language reaffirming individual property rights and requires public notice before the land bank could sell any parcels. At Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle’s insistence, council would have veto power over sales for at least the first two years. That’s better than the current system, which gives individual council members too much authority in their districts, but it remains to be seen if that will be sufficient to remove politicking from the process.

Even if the measure achieves final passage in city council today, hurdles remain, including funding, which Ms. Gross hopes could come from nonprofits and foundations.

The city needs a better way to deal with its neglected properties and return them to productive use and the tax rolls. A Pittsburgh land bank may offer the best chance.

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