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Land bank ordinance legislation to boost lot cleanups in Pittsburgh

| Sunday, April 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
City Source Associates executive director Bill Harlak of Knoxville looks at one of the young trees planted on a lot on Larimer Avenue at Joseph Street in Larimer. The lot is maintained by his crews.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Bob Lewis clears litter from a URA lot on Dinwiddie Street at Reed Street in the Lower Hill District. Lewis is part of a crew from City Source Associates that maintains vacant lots in the city.

Some of Pittsburgh's vacant lots become dumping grounds for used tires. Others get filled with construction debris. Some are overwhelmed with knotweed, a thick and invasive species that has been a plague since Bill Harlak started cleaning lots 34 years ago.

Harlak is executive director of City Source Associates, the city's property maintenance contractor. He attempts to keep tidy 7,200 vacant city-owned lots, plus 1,400 the Urban Redevelopment Authority owns. His dozen employees clean perhaps 2,000 lots a year, he said.

“There's always more land,” he said.

Surplus city-owned property, whether a patch of grass or an abandoned home, drains about $5.5 million a year from the budget, according to the city planning department. The estimate includes costs to the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Building Inspection and police. A newly established land bank could reduce the cost — if it can succeed in selling abandoned properties.

Mayor Bill Peduto last week signed the land bank ordinance, calling it an “important and powerful tool” for neighborhood redevelopment. Among its acquisition powers, the land bank can receive city property transfers and sell them to private citizens or companies. Under state law, land banks can clear titles faster than the typical legal process.

Before the land bank can begin, City Council and Peduto must select an interim board, which could pursue startup funding from foundations, said Councilwoman Deb Gross of Highland Park, who sponsored the legislation.

“It's so critical these days, in every budget line, to look for places where we can leverage external resources,” she said.

Maintenance of a property with a structure costs the city about $1,287 a year, according to city planning data. Vacant lots cost $595.

City Source depends on its public contracts with the city and URA. The company emerged from a public works campaign to clean up the city in the early 1980s. About 20 years ago, Harlak said, he employed up to 30 workers and had a budget of about $900,000. Contracts in recent years have hovered between $300,000 and $400,000.

Crews are responsible for mowing lawns, boarding up abandoned houses and removing snow.

“We'll be out here cutting this soon,” he said about a lot on Larimer Avenue near Joseph Avenue in Larimer where the city planted trees last year.

Jim Richter, executive director of the nonprofit Hazelwood Initiative, said neighborhood groups try to fill in the gaps with vacant lot cleanups.

“The lack of attention to those lots, by virtue of there being so many and the budget being so limited, has created a situation where the lots aren't really that well attended,” he said.

Harlak said resident complaints drive the priority list for property cleanup efforts. Crews work from the oldest complaint to the newest. Some lots nobody calls about, Harlak said, on streets where no one lives. But the crews know where to look.

“In the city, they're hopscotch,” Harlak said. “We'll go over here and get two, go around the corner and get two more.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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