Philadelphia Has A Poor Land Use Record–Why Expand It?

[Originally published by Market Urbanism]


1. My Forbes article this week is about Mamey, a delicious tropical fruit that is popular in Miami but unknown around the U.S.

2. This week I requested interviews with the executives of Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority and its Housing Authority—Brian Abernathy and Kelvin Jeremiah. I said that I was writing an article about both agencies’ recent eminent domain zeal. In case you’re unfamiliar, I’m referencing the PHA’s mass overhaul of the Sharswood neighborhood, and the PRA’s multiple recent attempted takings, all plans that have been documented on this site (here and here). Neither agency has responded—which means I’ll try again Monday. But in preparation, I’ve been reading literature about the land management history of Philadelphia’s government. Here are links:

a. It would be hard to understand Philly’s history without knowing of Edmund Bacon, the city’s chief planner for two decades. He was described by architectural critic Paul Goldberger as a more tasteful Robert Moses, mixing “the bulldoze-and-rebuild philosophy of urban renewal with the tentative beginnings of the historic preservation movement.” But in these articles, you’ll notice that he followed many of the past and present follies of the planning profession–by advocating for height limits; out-of-date transportation modes; and large, ugly, white elephant projects. Most telling were his attempts to lure the World’s Fair, a decade after it had proven disastrous in New York City.

b. The paper “Urban Politics and the Vision of a Modern City: Philadelphia and Lancaster after World War II,” gives a more detailed look at Bacon’s vision. He had grown disturbed by the white middle-class exodus from Philly, and wanted pet projects that would draw them back, in defiance of the city’s fiscally-conservative Republican establishment. This vision included saving historic Center City neighborhoods, while severely altering the surrounding black ones:

Rehousing the thousands of families uprooted by renewal—many of them poor African Americans—posed a problem for Philadelphia’s redevelopment authority, as did the white, often violent opposition to any effort by the city to relocate uprooted black families into small public-housing complexes secreted amid white neighborhoods…But, in the glow of the 1950s modernist vision, Philadelphia’s progrowth business, civic, and planning coalition hoped that…high- and low-rise public housing, ideally scattered amid rehabilitating white neighborhoods, would soften the social impact of downtown rebuilding. Alas, as the North Philadelphia riots of August 1964 attested, this did not happen.

Both the PRA and the PHA, founded before Bacon, were instrumental in executing his plans.

c. Here’s a telling of that same history on the PRA website–without, of course, the tales of displacement.

d. Several decades later, the PHA housing where many were steered was found by HUD to be substandard.

e. Such findings–along with extreme corruption and mismanagement–have inspired HUD on two occasions to temporarily take over the PHA: in 1992 and 2011.

f. In 2006, an official with the Penn’s Landing Corporation—working in partnership with the PRA—was sentenced to 30 months in prison for receiving kickbacks during the bidding process for a proposed waterfront project.

g. Another PRA policy has been to seize abandoned, tax delinquent properties and then auction them off. But because the PRA is a slow bureaucracy, it has failed to quickly transfer these properties back onto the private market, while leaving them under-maintained.

h. Perhaps one of the stronger ideas to emerge from this dysfunction was the Philadelphia Land Bank. This was approved in 2014 to consolidate Philly’s 30,000 vacant lots–8,000 of which are government-owned (including by the PRA and PHA)–into a single database. This will mean that developers looking to buy several lots on the same block won’t have to negotiate with multiple agencies, like they do now. Will the Land Bank streamline things, or just become another archaic Philadelphia system?


If there is a common thread behind Philadelphia’s land use approach–from Bacon to today–it is that when faced with capital flight, the answer has been for government agencies to control property instead. This has encouraged policies like mass eminent domain, subsidization of large public-private projects, widespread public housing construction, and seizure of tax delinquent lots. Yet this has hardly produced better outcomes, as the agencies have been mired in waste, bureaucracy, corruption, abuse and mismanagement. It should be noted that in the half-century since Philly expanded its land use footprint, the city has further declined, enjoying a slight population increase only last decade, for the first time since 1950.

These are points that I will bring up to Abernathy and Jeremiah when discussing their agencies’ recent takings. Of my two main questions, the first will be logistical—given that Philadelphia owns 8,000 abandoned lots, why does it need to seize already-functioning private ones? My second will be more general—if Philadelphia has such a porous land use record, what justifies the expanded role now? I’ll look forward to hearing the officials’ answers…assuming they agree to speak.