Philadelphia’s $10 million buyback plan could save hundreds of community gardens and lots from sheriff’s sale

Councilmember Brooks’ “Restore Community Land” plan would address bank-owned properties from a failed bond deal from 1997.

Volunteers who helped create and maintain Viola Street Community Garden in Parkside speak at a press conference announcing the 'Restore Community Land' plan

Volunteers who helped create and maintain Viola Street Community Garden in Parkside speak at a press conference announcing the 'Restore Community Land' plan

Courtesy Office of Councilmember Kendra Brooks

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Councilmember Kendra Brooks, with the support of Councilmember Helen Gym and community gardeners from around Philadelphia, is introducing a plan to buy back thousands of plots to save hundreds of community gardens and green space.

The land is owned by U.S. Bank National Association, which received the “vacant” parcels via a 1997 bond sale, and is now sending them to sheriff’s sale.

Viola Street Community Garden in Parkside, where Brooks held a press conference Monday afternoon, is one example of a garden at risk.

Brooks’ plan — which she said was created in conjunction with concerned organizations and neighbors, as well as Gym and Councilmember Jaime Gauthier — is to introduce a $10 million budget line item to buy roughly 2,000 of these parcels back.

Community gardeners would then have the chance to buy their spaces through the Philadelphia Land Bank, so they could own years of hard work. Brooks mentioned that the remaining lots, which would also held by the Land Bank, could be made available for the development of affordable housing. But it’s a race against time, as U.S. Bank has stated plans to complete the selloff by October 2023.

Joyce Smith is interim board president of Centennial Parkside, a community development corporation for the neighborhood.

“We can’t compete with these well-heeled, well-connected capital rich developers, we can’t,” Smith said. “We need more public land in community hands, and we need it earmarked for open space, the opportunity to carve out affordable housing, and community gardens like the Viola Garden.”

This is going down in a context where over 140 community gardens have been lost in recent years. Fifty more parcels of community garden space are on U.S. Bank-owned plots, according to Brooks, and their loss would put a large dent in the amount of city green space developed by residents. She described this initiative as one of the primary ways to stem the bleeding.

The land in question is what remains of a massive sale of 30,000 tax liens in 1997. It was meant to raise funds for the School District of Philadelphia, but ended up losing money for the city as investors didn’t earn a return on the spaces, which were often left untouched.

Twenty-five years later, these properties are being sold off by the bank that holds these liens.

Neighbors tend plantings in Viola Street Community Garden

Neighbors tend plantings in Viola Street Community Garden

Courtesy Office of Councilmember Kendra Brooks

Neighbors involved with Cesar Andreú Iglesias Community Garden in Norris Square note that U.S. Bank neglected the properties for years, but now that the lots “have become valuable for investors and real estate developers, they are selling them as fast as possible.”

The fight to protect community gardens has been evolving as Philadelphia’s development renaissance places many of the long-established spaces under threat of sale. Green-thumbed neighbors have recently worked in greater coordination with the introduction of the Philly Urban Agriculture Plan.

Advocates and academics agree it’s an especially green version of blight remediation, which can help combat community violence as they build community. Penn professor Eugenia South is coauthor of a study formalizing this point.

“Ultimately, we found that any [greening] intervention — particularly in neighborhoods below the poverty line to our hardest hit neighborhoods economically — lead to a significant reduction in gun violence up to 29%,” South told Billy Penn.

Not only is it more cost-effective than many other public safety initiatives, many community gardeners see their work as a preferable investment.

Naomi Smith, an older gardener at Viola Street, stressed the ways that the space generates community, saying “we share our stuff with everybody.” She told attendees at Councilmember Brooks’ Monday announcement that “when everything grows, come back and I’ll give you some of my garden.”

Thanking officials and neighbors for their presence, Smith signed off with a simple suggestion.

“There’s plenty of empty lots around, so look around and leave this one for us.”

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