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Vanaski: Bank on land bank changing face of Pittsburgh neighborhoods

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By Nafari Vanaski
Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

A meeting at Central Baptist Church in the Hill District about land bank legislation attracted so many Pittsburghers last month that the church had to move the audience from a meeting room to its sanctuary.

City Council members Ricky Burgess, Darlene Harris and R. Daniel Lavelle rallied those opposed to the legislation.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith attended but was undecided about the idea.

“This land is your land,” Harris told the crowd. Burgess said of the land banking proponents: “I do not trust them,” adding, “This land is all we have left.”

Weeks later, the legislation passed with some changes. The only member voting “no” was Harris, whose stated objection was that the city's Real Estate Department does something similar to what a land bank would do. The land bank's board has the authority to acquire land, clear property titles of liens and other debts and sell blighted properties to developers.

I asked Burgess what changed so drastically that he ended up supporting the ordinance. He said he wanted the community and the council to have greater participation in the workings of a land bank, and that changes to the bill addressed that.

“(The bill) gives me and residents direct participation,” Burgess said, noting that residents and council members can be part of the land bank board, and affordable housing is stipulated as a priority.

The question of how a land bank might change the literal face of some city neighborhoods — and if it's worth that cost — is not one I ask lightly.

At the Hill meeting, Burgess kept saying: “We don't want them dropping the SouthSide Works in Homewood.”

My first thought when he said that was: What's wrong with that? What's wrong with something that could change the landscape of a neighborhood whose landscape could use a change? There are entire blocks in city neighborhoods, including those around Central Baptist Church, with dilapidated buildings. Would I rather see a Starbucks there? Sorry, but yeah.

Burgess concedes that land maintenance of delinquent properties is something lacking in the city, and something the legislation hopefully will help correct.

The land bank is part of a continuing conversation about how to rebuild low-income communities, he said. There's no set answer about that, however.

“But I look forward to working with new administration to make that happen,” he said.

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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