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Pittsburgh Land Bank officials say 2022 is going to be a big year

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Land Bank officials said Friday that the city will see momentum in 2022 after years of delay. An end-of-year report struck an unusual note of optimism as it touted the land bank’s progress since last January: A new, full-time manager; its status as an affiliate entity of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which brings access to that agency’s resources; and a plan for progress next year.

“We are going to scale up and become operational very quickly,” said Diamonte Walker, head of the Land Bank, and deputy executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. “You should see that the first month of the year” when the Land Bank expects to close on a number of properties.

Critical to that progress was a change approved by board members Friday that is meant to make it easier to get land to community development groups.

Previously, the Land Bank could only move land to the city and the URA, not the other way around. So while the Land Bank was empowered to clear debts and claims on vacant or abandoned land, it had essentially no land on which to do so.

It’s a problem that has plagued the Land Bank for its entire existence, said Walker.

“We’re losing these assets while we’re waiting for the city or the URA to steward them,” she said.

Now, 57 properties that have sat in a city account for years — with the intent of selling them to community groups through the Land Bank — can finally move forward. Board members also approved $150,000 for the legal work needed to clear the parcels.

City Councilor Bobby Wilson asked why more properties couldn’t be added, and said he was worried that groups in his district may not have had the wherewithal to identify properties they want to buy and use to develop for community initiatives.

It’s a very expensive process, and this is just a start, said City Councilor Daniel Lavelle.

“These ones were explicitly targeted to say, if we clear title on this, [Oakland Planning and Development Corporation is immediately ready to take action … if we clear title on this, Perry Hilltop-Fineview is ready to take action on these,” he said. “These are the targeted ones that we know we can actually move.”

Making the Land Bank a brief way-station versus a long-term home on the road from abandoned lot to active property is crucial, officials said. Once a property is transferred to the Land Bank, the agency is responsible for maintenance such as grass-cutting and snow removal, which is expensive.

Walker echoed Lavelle and added that she and staff have focused not on making the Land Bank into a landowner, but on fixing processes so land can quickly be moved to end users.

“By doing the legal and structural fixes we enable that to happen,” she said.

URA counsel Matt Sanders added that nothing restrains the board from adding more properties in the future.

But for the rest of the city’s roughly 10,000 vacant parcels, the land bank must carefully evaluate which groups get land and for what, said Councilor Ricky Burgess.

“I want to encourage them to dream big and be great,” he said. “But I want to refrain … from using our resources to simply fix up doomed property that may or may not have an end use.”

Board members expect to work on a strategic plan next year, as well as to draw up a plan to use $10 million of federal American Rescue Plan funding that was allocated to the Land Bank from the URA and the city.