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Key land bank legislation remains lodged in Pittsburgh City Council

Doors to Pittsburgh City Council chambers.
Maggie Young
90.5 WESA

A new agreement intended to help the Pittsburgh Land Bank return more vacant and distressed land to active use hit a snag in City Council on Tuesday, as members wrestled with their role in choosing buyers.

Councilor Deb Gross, who led Tuesday’s post-agenda discussion, said the city has three pathways to sell land: through the city, its urban redevelopment authority, and the land bank.

“We want to figure out which of the kinds of properties that we have are appropriate for which of these tools,” she said.

Council is considering changes to a three-party agreement that governs how the agencies work together to transfer and sell land. Officials say the main objective is to put the land bank on an equal footing with the other two entities, so that it will be able to request property directly, rather than through a request to a council member for a bill that transfers a piece of property.

Some councilors worry that changing the tri-party agreement will diminish their influence on development, and harm their districts. And most of Tuesday’s discussion focused on what power council has, and should have, to determine the fate of any given piece of land.

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Once council approves land to be transferred to the land bank, “who’s to say that those properties don’t get sold to [local developer] Walnut Capital to build some luxury housing that my community doesn’t want or need?” asked Councilor Barb Warwick.

Warwick proposed adding another layer of council approval before land could be sold. But Councilor Erika Strassburger said that while she understands Warwick’s concern, “I just don’t want to slow down the process.”

Strassburger added that the calculation may be different in 10 years, when the need to move properties back on to the tax rolls quickly is less important than “the intention of the end buyer and user. Right now, speed and alacrity is my priority.”

Under the existing process, council members can broadly shape what the land they’re transferring will be used for: affordable housing or urban agriculture, for example. Councilor Deb Gross asked her colleagues to consider a hypothetical in which council wants to transfer land to the land bank to sell to an urban farmer, but “the land bank … may or may not actually sell it to that farmer who’s been farming on that piece of property.”

Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who is a land bank board member, said that such a scenario was “technically” possible. But “if this body said to the land bank, ‘We’re looking to move property to protect this farm,’ I don’t see a scenario in which the land bank would … choose to do something separate with it.”

“Can we get a legal agreement in place that would make sure of that?” Gross asked. “This proposed agreement does not make sure of that.”

The current agreement doesn’t, either.

Council must approve the sale of land to be set aside for city treasurer’s sales for delinquent taxes, and must also approve transfers to the URA or the land bank. When that happens, the land is then subject to very different sales processes. Council does not currently have approval over the final buyer.

The land bank’s sales process took years to develop, and it prioritizes sales that support neighborhood stabilization, low-income home ownership, and greenways, among other objectives. Any sale is subject to at least two separate votes of the land bank’s board, as well as an objection and appeal process in which individuals, or council members, could contest a sale.

“There’s just a lot sort of built in so that you’re not ending up in a bad result,” Lavelle said.

Kyle Chintalapalli, the city’s chief development officer and URA board president, acknowledged council’s concerns, and said he’d be glad to have conversations “around ways in which we can be responsive to what we’ve heard.”

Discussion of the land bank lasted two hours, but Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said further discussion and work will be needed before she schedules a public hearing on the matter.