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How A Small Change Could Help Revitalize Main Streets Across Pennsylvania

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Under current law it was time-consuming and difficult for the Tri-COG Land Bank to help recycle an old dry cleaners in Swissvale, Pa., just east of Pittsburgh.

There are boroughs and townships throughout the commonwealth that are most notable for how empty they feel, commercial corridors where vacant storefronts far outnumber active businesses. Legislation under consideration in Harrisburg, House Bill 610, would expand the scope of land banks to help address the problem.

Land banks clean and recycle land: They can acquire a piece of property and clear it of old legal entanglements and taxes so it can be sold and returned to use. But there’s one type of property that land banks have a really hard time working with — brownfields.

An Lewis is the executive director of the Tri-COG Land Bank, and she said when most people think about brownfields, abandoned steel mills or huge industrial sites come to mind.

“But what we don’t really think about are all of those neighborhood-based businesses: dry cleaners, gas stations, junk yards.”

Unlike the state’s redevelopment agencies, land banks are not protected from the environmental liability associated with those sites. If a land bank purchased a neighborhood brownfield it could be sued for the harms created by the last owner. In addition, it could be required to clean up those sites, which entails expensive testing and any number of remediation requirements.

The risk and expense keep a lot of places trapped in limbo, Lewis said.

“The amount of oversight from the state is really important,” she said. “But it can act as a barrier to redevelopment.”

The proposed legislation would solve that problem with a small change: it adds “land bank” to a list of entities in Pennsylvania that can do this work without being held responsible for cleanup. Land banks could instead acquire properties, hold them and navigate the process of creating a clean up plan. Then, that plan and its costs could be shared with a potential buyer.

State Rep. Austin Davis introduced the bill and he said the small change it makes could have a big impact.

“We could start to see major revitalization in communities that haven’t seen revitalization in a long time,” he said, adding that no one’s really working on bringing these small brownfield sites back to life.

The Tri-COG Land Bank experienced the inefficiency of the existing system first hand, Lewis said. In 2018 the Borough of Swissvale asked the land bank to help revitalize a former dry cleaners. Shortly after getting involved the land bank realized state law did not protect them; it’s taken more than two years to sort through the red tape.

If the law had been different, “very likely that property would have been returned to the tax rolls some time ago.”

The bill is scheduled for a committee vote on Tuesday.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at