A lot about a Lot

September 20, 2008

A lot about a Lot

By Mike Morrissey





Philadelphia (PA)-On a recent Friday, dozens of people strolled by a vacant lot on the corner of South and 13th streets without a glance. A few looked up to see the building sized mural on the side of Harry’s Occult Shop that makes up one side of the lot. But no one broke stride to view the unused parcel, overgrown with weeds and littered with trash.

Vacant and undeveloped lots just aren’t that unusual in Philadelphia. According to the city website, there are over 31,000 of them throughout the city. This particular lot is owned, but it is in neglect. According to James Cyril Campbell of Campbell, Thomas & Co, an architectural and planning firm in Center City Philadelphia, the lot has stood undeveloped since at least 1976. Mr. Campbell believes a key reason for this and other vacant lots in the neighborhood stems from disinvestment in the area, due in some measure to events dating all the way back thirty years.  A proposal for what would be called the Crosstown-Expressway, or what Campbell describes as a “debacle in the 1960s and 70s”. The Expressway, a proposed 8 lane highway that would have uprooted thousands along South and neighboring Lombard Streets, came close to a reality in 1967 and lingered onward until finally being terminated in 1976.


Yet the economic damage, caused by debate and hedging for over a decade over whether the neighborhood would even exist, caused citizens, businesses, and federal urban development funds to dry up and leave.

Campbell, and his architectural partner Robert Thomas worked together on the civic and neighborhood associations opposed to the highway projects, and have worked actively in Center City and adjoining areas since 1979. He offers that he knows the area and the undeveloped lot very well, but because the parcel officially remains in private ownership and its taxes are paid, “there is little to be done other than bugging the owner, and Licenses and Inspections”. Licenses and Inspections is the arm of the Philadelphia City government charged with enforcing the city’s code requirements on public safety and zoning. More on them later.

            The owners of the land on the other hand, have not been bugged to do much with the lot

in recent history. Bought by S+W South St. Partners in 1987 according to the Board of Revision and Taxes, the lot sat unused for 19 years. The manager of the neighboring Harry’s Occult Shop, Marcia Finnegan, says that only rarely has she seen the lot being cared for. The weeds that straddle the sidewalk, the fence, and the lot vary between knee high shrubs, to plants the size of stop signs. Inside the lot, wild weeds sprout everywhere, and debris litters everything: cigarettes, boxes, cans, bottles, bricks and signs. The last time she remembers the lot being cleaned was late last year, when its weeds were mysteriously mowed, and debris removed. What was the occasion?

The lot was being sold.

Albeit a good sign that the unused lot was of interest, the fact that the only time that neighbors can remember the property being cleaned is right before it was to be sold is noteworthy. The new owners, WSG Development of Miami, Florida seem to be showing interest in the property. A representative of the company, Jamile Myren, was contacted and said that his company was weighing its options with the lot. Asked why his company bought the property, he responded that it was a good investment and went on to say that attempts would be made to keep the lot presentable, but no drastic measures would be taken because it may hinder potential plans. Pressed for the future plans, he responded “It all depends on economic circumstances.” Doesn’t it always.

The Center City area of Philadelphia has experienced a minor boom in residential buying over the last ten years. Among a myriad of other factors, one local aspect that has been pointed to as a cause for this are two city-wide real estate tax abatements given to developers for building or converting buildings into condos and apartments.  The abatements were started in 2000, and from 2000 to 2005, “over 8,200 new residential units were created” according to The Planning of Center City by John Andrew Gallery, which he credits with helping revitalizing Center City with more people and businesses. It’s possible that Center City and its adjoining areas have turned a corner, and have become hot places to do business and develop. The undeveloped lot on the corner of South and 13th that has sat vacant since at least 1976 could indeed be developed in the near future.

Yet Patricia Bullard, former Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition President, a local neighborhood association, has seen this song and dance before. A resident of the neighboring Hawthorne community for 17 years, Patricia has officially been involved in neighborhood relations since 1999. Her formal job was president, but she said she often felt more like a referee. In an interview, she recounted a recent encounter with a developer while she was out taking a walk:


A man and his crew were in the process of tearing down and gutting a house, but there was no permit showing. She asked them where was their permit, and what they were doing? The man replied they were tearing down the house and putting up an 8-story condo. Surprised, she told them that they needed a permit to tear down the building, and that it was against zoning regulations for the neighborhood to have such a tall structure in the first place, but that you also needed to build a parking lot to house any apartments over three stories tall. The man argued with her, and finally shouted, you’re ruining me! She countered; I’m just telling you the rules.


Asked about the undeveloped lot on South and 13th and its new owners, she said she was familiar with the land and hoped for the best. She echoed James’ sentiment that the private property was private property, and it had to be dealt with tactfully. Her neighborhood of Hawthorne has dealt with its fair share of developers having very different visions from the current residents. Sometimes that means buildings that don’t fit the character of the neighborhood in size and use. Other times it means developers sitting on vacant land until ‘better’ economic opportunities arise. She personally describes the housing market as “poor” and wouldn’t predict what would become of the open lot.

Yet what can concerned neighbors do to help this situation: an undeveloped lot sits vacant for thirty years, its weeds overgrown, littered with garbage, an eyesore and a possible resting ground for illegal activity. It may be developed in a year. It may never be developed. Yet a neighbor cannot do anything because it’s private property?

In the instance of the lot on 13th and South, the issue hopefully is fast improving. Talking with the owners here gives one the impression that they may be doing something with the lot in the very near future, and it will be good for the neighborhood. Yet a local journalist who covers community issues for the South Philly Review, Lorraine Gennaro offers that half the time she tries to contact land or store owners for various types of stories, they do not want to talk or she cannot find them. Over the course of this article, it took two weeks to finally get in contact with the WSG employee Jamile Myren, who lives out of state. Getting owners on the phone may be difficult enough, getting them to act in the best interest of the community is that much harder.


The Philadelphia Story


Absentee and neglectful owners have been an important story in Philadelphia and other major U.S. cities over the last thirty years. In 1950, Philadelphia’s population was 2.1 million, and was a major industrial center. Yet soon after, citizens of large U.S. cities as a whole began to move to the suburbs, and many businesses left with them. Major high ways were built and proposed, such as the aforementioned Crosstown expressway above, which caused major shifts to populated areas in the 1960s and 70s. The results were vacant or unsold properties in many areas being generally an every block occurrence, leading to urban blight, or decay. Many communities in Philadelphia suffered, and reality mixed with perception led to areas where crime can perpetuate itself on the poor, and there is very little hope of internal development. From a high of 2.1 million people in Philadelphia in 1950, the city lost over 25% of its population by 1990, to stand at just over 1.5 million. It has trickled down every year since to stand at 1.45 million in 2006.

One way to help deal with the population shift and the evolution of the city was for neighborhood groups to form and bring their concerns to city officials, or else try to make matters better for themselves. An area that practiced this was Kensington, in northeast Philadelphia. Out of the violence and problems in the area, the citizens of the town joined together in the 1980s to form the New Kensington Community Development Corporation. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the community group helped develop ways to combat urban blight and vacant lots by getting funding to either restore the property or tear the structure down to erase the danger that it posed and help spur development. Then Philadelphia City Council President John Street saw the neighborhood program as a model, and used it as a platform when he ran for mayor of Philadelphia and won in 2000.

During that year a study was commissioned by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society that stated that there were 30,000 vacant lots throughout the city, and an additional 30,000 abandoned and vacant buildings. Newly elected Mayor Street entered office with combat of this issue as a major campaign theme. Upon entering office, he created a program based on the Kensington model and called it the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI). The mayor’s office, NTI officials, and the City Planning Commission worked through a myriad of agencies distributing and using the $300 million in bonds that were raised for the NTI.
            The main focus for NTI and these agencies was to identify the vacant and undeveloped lots, the abandoned buildings, and even unused factories and address them. About one third of these properties were owned by the city, but the other two thirds were owned by private individuals or companies, who were either letting the property slip into disrepair but still paid the taxes, or didn’t pay taxes on the property at all, making them massive tax delinquents. Thus the city began to focus on what it should have done all along: enforce the laws that were already on the books, make people clean up their properties if they planned on keeping them, or force delinquent tax offenders to pay back taxes, or else lose their property in a process called a sheriffs sale, selling the property to the highest bidder. 


13th and South St. Lot


What does this have to do with the undeveloped lot on 13th and South St.? This is the grey area. The owners here pay their taxes. Yet there are a number of property maintenance rules that the lot would seem to violate, such as tall weeds, plants, garbage, and even blight influence and unsafe conditions. The city has begun to put a greater emphasis on dealing with these conditions. Quick internet search will point a citizen to the Philadelphia city website, and onto the city’s arm for enforcing the city’s property maintenance codes: Licenses and Inspections. The Department of Licenses and Inspection’s website provides resources for citizens to acquire building permits, request zoning hearings, and file service requests for building and property maintenance standards. A service request can be quickly filed online, or by calling the L+I office. But what happens then?

A spokesperson for the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections, Gayle Johns was contacted for this story and answered that in the case of a privately owned lot such as this, an inspection unit will examine the lot and determine the appropriate actions. Philadelphia has a Property Maintenance Code and Ms. Johns offered that in the case of vacant lots, the violations that are most often cited, and reports filed, most often look like this:


PM-306.0/2 -( The subject vacant lot has been inspected and found to be a public nuisance in violation of City code requirements.  As such it is declared unsafe. (See PM-202 and PM-306)

All lots must be maintained in a clean, safe and sanitary condition free from any accumulation of rubbish or garbage, any weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 inches, noxious weeds of any height, and animal droppings.  Dead, decayed, or otherwise hazardous trees must be removed.  (See PM-302 and PM-306.1)

Important additional information:

If you do not comply with these requirements within 5 days of this notice, the City will be authorized to abate the said nuisance.  You will be required to repay all costs incurred including an administrative fee.  Failure to pay such costs will result in a lien being placed against the property and/or costs and charges being recovered by a civil action brought against you. (See A-503.2)


Asked whether or not a vacant lot located in a poorer neighborhood with a higher percentage of blight might be treated differently, Ms. Johns stated that all property inspections, regardless of owner, circumstances, or location are treated the same.

Significant in this sequence however is that the inspection process is complaint driven, meaning that a neighbor has to be willing to make contact with L+I to initiate the inspection. Anecdotal evidence from others contacted for this story suggests that this process is not as straight forward as it seems, as “complying” with property maintenance rules does not always mean to the highest extent possible.

Patricia Bullard notes that the abandoned building behind the vacant lot on South and 13th has been a nuisance for at lease the last two years. She says that she has seen people sneaking in and out of the basement and into the first floor windows before. Bullard speculate drug activity. What concerns her the most is the broken glass and debris from those windows falling out onto people’s heads. Wooden barricades currently surround the building, but these appear to be more about satisfying the letter of the law then keeping people out.  Similarly, there is a five foot high chain-linked fence that surrounds the vacant lot at 13th and South, with a hole eight feet wide appearing near one of the corners that is covered with a detached piece of ply wood.



Make-Shift Door



Lean on Me


All of those contacted for this story said that organizing a group of neighbors, as is the case in Kensington and in Hawthorne, was truly the most important step. Having an established group of people that are dedicated to taking care of the neighborhood allows if nothing else a forum for neighbors to voice their concerns and put a face on their rights. The City’s Redevelopment Authority is a major ‘owner’ or public land in the city and if local neighbor groups can organize a productive plan for the property, their have been cases for the city selling the land for as little as $1 to help spur investment.

In addition, there are programs offered by the city government or non-profits that can help support a smaller cause, such as cleaning up a problem property. In the case of city owned public land, programs such as the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee offers tools and equipment for member of the community to clean problem areas in their neighborhoods.

Tax policies could also be considered that favor development rather than private owners sitting on land until the perfect hypothetical market comes along. Numerous vacant properties in the same area can produce an endless game of wait and see among developers. Local politicians, in the case of the 13th  and South St. lot, Councilman of the 1st district Frank Dicicco, could be knowledgeable and helpful in this regard, especially on problems with abandoned buildings and unsafe structures. Patricia Bullard offers that despite disagreements with Councilman Dicicco over development ideas, the HEC has worked well him in the past, and he has helped them negotiate with developers. The Councilman’s office could not be reached for comment.

For a single individual wanting to do something about local private property such as South and 13th, organizing with neighbors and offering to take care of the land can be met with success, especially if done in coordination with organizations such as the Philadelphia Horticultural Society which runs Philly Green, a program that coordinates community gardens.

While the lot faces at least its 30th winter as an open, undeveloped lot, it can continue to claim one of the city’s 1700 murals, this one of St. Michael, on the side of one of the buildings bordering the lot. The city continues to boast the largest amount of street and building sized murals in the country, often used in areas to combat blight and neglect. Time will tell if this mural will survive here.





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