Can Philadelphia Learn From Vacant-Lot Robin Hood?

(September 2012)

Philadelphia has found a new folk hero in Ori Feibush, the scrappy developer who, at his own expense, cleaned up a City-owned vacant lot that was a source of blight and decay in Point Breeze.  Feibush, who recently opened a lovely coffee shop adjacent the former neighborhood eyesore, had spent more than a year formally trying to purchase the vacant lot or get it cleared of trash.  But, frustrated with the City's unwillingness or inability to maintain the lot as anything other than an illegal dump site, he decided that enough was enough and that he would do what the City refused to.  He cleared the trash, removed the unsightly (and ineffective) barriers around the lot, repaired the sidewalk, and created a clean and green pocket park that is being enjoyed by neighbors as an amenity.

For too long, the City has neglected its responsibility to maintain properties it owns, which become weed- and trash-strewn lots that attract short-dumping and vermin as they frustrate residents who look to government for help.  So, it is certainly understandable that some decide to stop looking to government for that help.

Feibush may not have done the smart thing in taking money out of his own pocket to improve a property that is not his and in crossing legal bounds with the citizen-vigilante improvement.  He certainly did not do the savvy thing.  Most city residents know that the "Philly way" of getting stuff done would have been to curry favor with powerful folks who could have smoothed things over with the powers that be and made this problem go away.  Finally, and maybe most important, he didn't do the thing that so many others have done in the same circumstance.  He didn't give up and go away.

Philadelphia too often is a tough city in which to grow a business.  It is a tough city for someone trying to make positive change.  It's a tough city to love.  We perversely pride ourselves in enduring municipal disappointment after urban failure, tolerating conditions that appall visitors and new residents.  As to the folks who look around and see Philadelphia as a city of tremendous potential, we often content ourselves by remarking on the marginal progress we have made: "Oh, things aren't so bad should have seen this place a decade ago -- now THAT was a mess."

We deserve better.  When someone seeks to improve a neighborhood, we should not place obstacles before them, we should work with them to ensure that they can successfully develop projects that are neighborhood improvements and amenities.  When someone wants to help us realize the potential of our city, we should remove barriers to growth and encourage them to move forward.  We can’t just drive them crazy -- then drive them away.

New tools like a City land bank and a web-based system to track properties being transferred from public to private ownership should help developers avoid similar frustrations in the future.  But, much more important, we must change the mindset in City Hall that says that those who would improve neighborhoods must endure eyesores and blight while the City dithers and delays until a deal is cut behind closed doors to benefit a friend of the powerful.

No, citizens cannot just take possession of City property just because they want to, and the City cannot just allow anyone to stake a claim to publicly owned property.  But, Feibush's act of civic disobedience exposed the failings of the City's property stewardship and properly embarrassed City Hall for its long-term inaction as well as its reactionary hysteria in protest of the lot clean-up.

In the last decade, blight-removal efforts across the city have (at tremendous public expense) cleaned and greened lots, which has helped transform neighborhoods and encouraged developers like Feibush to invest in areas where so many have refused to build.  The can-do and JFDI attitudes that are infusing so much of Philadelphia with vibrancy will not tolerate the run-around and if we want to capitalize on our opportunities, Philadelphia cannot afford to wait decades for movement.