What does Philadelphia’s new public land policy mean for community gardeners?

On October 31, 2019, Philadelphia City Council passed an ordinance amending its policies on the sale and distribution of public land.  The purpose of the ordinance is to streamline the process by eliminating the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC) and creating uniform acquisition and disposition policies across most of the City’s land-holding agencies. The Philadelphia Land Bank and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority will be consolidated under the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation as a single unified land-holding agency with consistent processes and procedures.

There will still be two different types of processes for obtaining public land: a competitive bidding process for most market rate purchases of vacant, city-owned land; and a non-competitive bidding process for transactions at nominal value, such as community gardens. In this process, land can be transferred from City ownership to some other entity for a nominal fee.

Below, we review some of the new policies established by this ordinance, as well as those that remain the same, and the effect that they may have on community gardeners and others who seek to transform vacant land into green space.

Non-competitive bidding

The types of projects qualifying for nominal rate and noncompetitive bidding remain the same and include: side and rear yards; gardens and open/recreational space; business expansions; development assemblages; affordable housing; and community-based facilities such as day-cares and senior centers.

The new ordinance creates timelines and internal deadlines for the land-holding agency to respond to requests. Specifically, the ordinance requires that the agency respond to Expressions of Interest (EOIs) on properties with proposed uses that qualify for a non-competitive bid process within 30 days. Additionally, the agency will have 120 days (following receipt of a completed application) to notify the applicant of whether it will offer the applicant the property. The clear timeline established by the new ordinance is a positive change that will go a long way towards restoring confidence in the City’s land disposition process. Currently, many Philadelphians who submit EOIs on Land Bank properties and other public land often do not hear back in a timely fashion, and sometimes do not hear back at all.

However, we have some concerns about inconsistent enforcement and interpretation of other provisions related to the noncompetitive bidding process that most community gardeners will use. For example, the ordinance states that applicants seeking property for use as a community garden must be organized as a nonprofit under Pennsylvania law to qualify for a noncompetitive process. The City has previously stated on the record that applications from unincorporated nonprofits will be accepted. This is an important distinction for many community gardeners, given the cost and administrative barriers involved in officially incorporating as a nonprofit.

The ordinance does not specifically contradict this assurance from the city, but it also does not affirm that gardens may be unincorporated and still meet the requirements for nonprofit status. The vague language creates room for disparate and inconsistent application of this policy.

Transparency

The consolidated public landholding agencies will now release an annual Performance Report, which will provide lists of all properties acquired by the agencies, all properties conveyed by the agency, and all properties currently reserved for particular applicants. It will also provide an analysis of the agencies’ work, including its evaluation of applications and its progress towards goals established in the Land Bank strategic plan.

These details may alleviate some of the widespread concerns about transparency and accessibility in the public land disposition process and should also provide insight into how the agencies are making decisions on where land goes.

Other changes and next steps

Notable changes to the competitive bidding process include making the criteria used by landholding agencies to evaluate proposals from developers public. Scores in each criteria are weighted when used in the final decision-making process: 30% for economic opportunity and inclusion, 20% for development experience and capacity, 20% for financial feasibility, 15% for public purpose or social impact, 10% for project design, and 5% for offer price.

Making these criteria public is a great step forward. However, these criteria are largely undefined in the ordinance, leaving opportunity for inconsistent results when applications are evaluated. We hope the agencies will clearly define how they will evaluate these criteria as they develop their acquisition and deposition policy.

The Law Center looks forward to continued engagement with the City about how to improve public land disposition and make it equitable among community members. We also applaud City Council for approving $5.05 million in new funds for the Land Bank to support its operations and allow it to acquire new vacant properties in efforts to put them back into productive, and hopefully community based, re-use across the City.