Philadelphia’s $10 Million Plan to Save Community Gardens From Sheriff’s Sale

Councilman Brooks’ “Restore Community Land” plan would involve bank properties from a failed 1997 bond deal.

Volunteers who helped establish and maintain Viola Street Community Garden in Parkside speak at a press conference announcing the 'Restore Community Land' plan

Courtesy Office of Councilor Kendra Brooks

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Councilor Kendra Brooks, with the support of Councilor Helen Gym and community gardeners from across Philadelphia, is introducing a plan to buy back thousands of lots to save hundreds of community gardens and green space.

The land is owned by the US Bank National Association, which received the “empty” lots through a 1997 bond sale and now sends it to the sheriff’s sale.

Viola Street Community Garden in Parkside, where Brooks held a press conference Monday afternoon, is an example of a garden at risk.

Brooks’ plan — which she said was made in conjunction with concerned organizations and neighbors, as well as Gym and Councilman Jaime Gauthier — is to introduce a $10 million budget to buy back about 2,000 of these packages.

Community gardeners would then have the opportunity to purchase their spaces through the Philadelphia Land Bank so they could work hard for years to come. But it’s a race against time as US Bank has announced plans to complete the sale by October 2023.

Joyce Smith is interim board chairman of Centennial Parkside, a community development company for the neighborhood.

“We can’t compete with these affluent, well-connected, capital-rich developers, we can’t,” Smith said. “We need more community-owned public land, and we need it for open space, the ability to build affordable housing, and community gardens like the Viola Garden.”

This is perishing in a context where more than 140 community gardens have been lost in recent years. According to Brooks, another 50 community garden plots are on US Bank-owned lots, and their loss would put a big dent in the amount of green space in the city being developed by residents. She described this initiative as one of the most important ways to stop the bleeding.

The land in question is what’s left of a massive sale of 30,000 tax liens in 1997. It was intended to raise money for Philadelphia’s school district, but ended up losing money for the city because investors failed to earn returns on the spaces. , which often went untouched.

Twenty-five years later, these properties are sold by the bank that owns these liens.

Neighbors tend to plantings in Viola Street Community Garden
Courtesy Office of Councilor Kendra Brooks

Neighbors involved with Cesar Andreú Iglesias Community Garden in Norris Square note that US Bank has neglected the properties for years, but now that the lots “have become valuable to investors and real estate developers, they are selling them as soon as possible.”

The battle to protect community gardens is evolving as Philadelphia’s developmental renaissance sees many of its long-standing spaces threatened with sale. Green-fingered neighbors have recently worked more closely with the introduction of the Philly Urban Agriculture Plan.

Proponents and academics agree that it is a particularly green version of fire blight, which can help combat community violence in community building. Penn professor Eugenia South co-authored a study that formalizes this point.

“Eventually we discovered that every [greening] intervention — particularly in neighborhoods below the poverty line to our most economically affected neighborhoods — lead to significant reductions in gun violence by up to 29%,” South told Billy Penn.

Not only is it more cost-effective than many other public safety initiatives, many community gardeners see their work as a preferred investment.

Naomi Smith, an elderly gardener in Viola Street, emphasized the way the space generates community, saying, “We share our stuff with everyone.” She told attendees at Councilor Brooks’ announcement on Monday that “when everything grows, come back and I’ll give you some of my garden.”

Smith thanked officials and neighbors for attending and signed a simple suggestion.

“There are plenty of empty lots in the area, so look around and leave this one for us.”

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