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Proceed with caution

| Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Getting about 26,000 dilapidated Pittsburgh properties redeveloped and back on the tax rolls is a worthy goal. But before the Peduto administration and City Council supporters plunge ahead with a new land bank as that vehicle, potential problems must be considered.

The city and its Urban Redevelopment Authority own about half of these properties. Advocates say the land bank could consolidate them, clear their titles, remove liens that keep tax-delinquent parcels unsold at sheriff's sales and help developers acquire them. But the Allegheny Institute's Jake Haulk says the URA could work toward similar ends with the taxing bodies involved. He questions the necessity of this new, quasi-public land bank, saying there are “enough authorities around already.”

The land bank could borrow money, issue bonds and hire or contract for staff. But its unelected board — four mayoral and three council appointees — would be less than fully accountable to taxpayers.

Favoring the politically connected, land banks in St. Louis and elsewhere have bred corruption, says the Commonwealth Foundation's Elizabeth Stelle. And she and Mr. Haulk agree that land banks bring top-down, winner-picking governmental meddling to endeavors best left to the private sector.

The Pittsburgh land bank idea sounds good at first blush. But its fate must rest on whether it still seems to be so once the pratfalls are weighted.

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