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Officials say this is it: 2023 is the year for Pittsburgh’s Land Bank

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Board members for the Pittsburgh Land Bank approved a plan on Friday to spend $7 million over the next four years. The money will allow the land bank to buy properties from the city and the county, acquire clear ownership for that land, and then return it to active use. And board members say it’s an investment that is beginning to show a potential payoff.

“It feels like the year where the land bank has finally, actually become a functioning land bank,” board member and City Councilor Daniel Lavelle said after the meeting. “We actually have staff … we actually have resources. We have financing, and we're beginning to transact on land.”

City Council created the land bank in 2014 despite significant opposition from some members — one of whom, Councilor Ricky Burgess, now chairs the land bank board. It went through a long public process to establish a board and adopt rules and procedures — and then it languished.

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Community groups and land bank board members alike chalked it up to a lack of political will, especially as just outside the city, the Tri-COG Land Bank has managed to begin acquiring and selling properties across a footprint of 28 municipalities and nine school districts.

But officials say things are finally different for the Pittsburgh Land Bank.

Staff are working on what could be the land bank’s first sale, a building at 6 Boggs Avenue in Mount Washington. The Mount Washington Community Development Corporation made it through a 20-day period in which people could object to the group’s purchase of the property — one did — and now must show financing and a plan for acquiring and developing the property. The CDC must also win a zoning change.

Beyond that potential sale, land bank staff are working with other community groups to help them acquire land they had previously earmarked with the city.

The City of Pittsburgh holds a lot of vacant and distressed pieces of land (some of which also have buildings on them). But the city doesn’t really own most of that land, because — as often happens with neglected properties — it doesn’t have clear title. Part of what the land bank aims to do in the coming year is to buy land from the city’s inventory and pay a law firm to clear the title so that it can be legally sold. Under current agreements, the land bank will pay the city $2,200 for every lot, and $5,000 for every lot with a structure.

Land bank staff also hope to buy property from the county at sheriff’s sales.

Originally, the land bank’s board approved a $10 million spending plan for the next four years, but its allocation got chopped by a third during city budget negotiations.

Board member and City Councilor Bobby Wilson said they can still fulfill the goal of acquiring land and putting it to use.

“That doesn't affect what the land bank can do, especially the plan that's been laid out here … to successfully have a functioning land bank that can move property efficiently,” he said.

But there is still a long way to go.

While some lots are meant to be retained as greenways and the like, Land Bank manager Sally Stadelman told board members Friday that roughly 8,800 city-held parcels are fit to be saved and reused.

In the next four years, staff expect to get to just 5 percent of them.