Atlantic Cities

The Tricky Politics of Vacant Lots

The Tricky Politics of Vacant Lots
Flickr/The Shopping Sherpa

The empty lot next door to Ori Feibush's coffee shop in Philadelphia's Point Breeze neighborhood wasn't really empty. Though vacant, it was full of garbage and overgrown vegetation that made it – like many vacant lots in cities around the world – into a potentially dangerous eyesore. So Feibush did something about it.

After efforts to get the city to clean up the site failed to progress, Feibush took the cleanup efforts into his own hands, removing, he says, upwards of 40 tons of debris from the site. He also leveled parts of the ground, planted trees, built picnic benches, sidewalks and fencing. He invested roughly $20,000 to turn the vacant land into a small neighborhood park. Neighbors were ecstatic.

Less pleased was the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, owner of the lot. They contend that Feibush – also a real estate developer in the area – trespassed on their property and illegally transformed a piece of land he had no legal right to use. "Like any property owner, [the authority] does not permit unauthorized access to or alteration of its property," a Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority spokesperson told the Daily News. The PRA claims that Feibush had not made any efforts to express interest in the site or the possibility of buying it.

This is a clear instance of good Samaritanism, but it's also a smart business move. Cleaner, more friendly environments tend to draw more people to a place. And as this recent research shows, even making moderate cleanup efforts to vacant lots can dramatically reduce crime in the surrounding area.

But it's also a clear case of someone illegally using land that does not belong to them. The Redevelopment Authority is threatening legal action against Feibush, demanding that the site be returned to its original condition. That probably doesn't mean putting back the 40 tons of garbage and overgrown brush, but it likely will mean re-vacating the lot and closing off access to the public – thereby reducing any liability for accidents or incidents on the site.

Though the intent here was a good one – cleaning up a blighted, garbage filled lot and replacing it with a park – it also creates an unplanned administrative headache for the owner of the site. It's a shame that the two sides – those with the energy and means and those with the deed to the land – couldn't have come together to jointly address the issue. Instead, the owner will likely get its way and a community amenity may go back to being a neighborhood disadvantage.

Top image courtesy Flickr user The Shopping Sherpa

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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