For three years, Raynise Kelly and her sister have operated a small business in Pittsburgh’s Beltzhoover neighborhood where they produced food for their community.
They’ve hosted garden supply giveaways and summer camps since launching Soil Sisters, a seedling business “growing garden vegetable plants that focuses on food production,” Kelly said.
Four empty lots that have sat vacant near their business may soon be able to help them expand their efforts and bring more community gardening opportunities to the neighborhood.
Kelly said she envisions the lots being used to further urban gardening in her neighborhood. Her plans for the site include a farmers market and plots where neighbors could grow their own food, she said.
“I see this project as a community vision,” she said.
It’s one step closer to becoming a reality after the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, which owns the vacant lots, transferred the properties this week to the Pittsburgh Land Bank.
The city’s land bank will be able to more easily and efficiently dispose of the land and sell it to Kelly.
Such land transfers were made possible when City Council earlier this summer approved amendments to the tri-party agreement that governs the relationship between the city, the URA and the land bank. Previously, the land bank could transfer properties to the city and the URA, but not the other way around. Now, there’s a two-way street for the three entities to transfer lands to one another.
Officials have said this could make it easier for the city to take vacant public properties and transfer them to people or businesses who would bring them into productive reuse.
The city is limited to selling properties to the highest bidder, which means it couldn’t dedicate properties to specific end-users like Soil Sisters.
However, the URA can specifically determine what end use they want a property to have, rather than selling it to the highest bidder, but their process has been described as lengthy and cumbersome because of state regulations.
Now, the city and the URA can transfer properties to the land bank, which has an easier, shorter process for clearing titles and disposing of properties. It also can dedicate lands for specific end uses, and the URA or the city can specify end uses when they transfer lands to the land bank.
On Thursday, the URA board approved its first round of transfers to the land bank.
It included 17 parcels in various city neighborhoods that officials want to see converted into affordable housing and urban farms. One parcel in Larimer is set to go to a local business that hopes to renovate a garage on the site, according to information presented to the URA board.
A lot in Hazelwood is one of several that is set to be dedicated to affordable housing projects.
City of Bridges Community Land Trust is hoping to build its a quad-plex building that would include four ADA-accessible affordable housing units.
“This will be one parcel that will create homes for four families,” said Ed Nusser, the organization’s executive director.
Properties now will go through the Land Bank’s process to be disposed to the entities the URA has identified.
It was not immediately clear how long that process will take.
Councilwoman Barb Warwick, D-Greenfield, was said she was glad the process provided transparency so residents and local officials could see how the vacant properties will be used.
“We’re seeing exactly who these parcels are going to, what they’re being used for,” she said.
Bob Charland, chief of staff for City Councilman Bruce Kraus, D-South Side and the Democratic nominee to replace Kraus on council, said he hopes this is “the first series of many transfers of vacant land into a much higher and better use.”
“This is exactly what I think all of us were hoping we would see when the land bank got started here,” Charland said. “I just want to reiterate how appreciative I am to see a commitment to helping a small business, like the Soil Sisters.”
Lindsay Powell, who sits on the URA board, said the ability to transfer URA- and city-owned land to the Land Bank will allow it to better bring empty sites into productive reuse.
“It has the ability to make transformational, tangible change for our neighborhoods and for our neighbors,” she said. “We are seeing so many of these lots that have laid bare for so long go back into usefulness.”