Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
In a cruel reflection of the blighted land it set out to address, last night's meeting about the long-vacant properties on the 5000 and 5100 blocks of Baltimore Ave. quickly devolved into a mess of confusion and conflicting interests. Organized by Cedar Park Neighbors (CPN) and the Baltimore Avenue Business Association to update neighbors on conflicting development proposals for public land in the area, the meeting was quickly hijacked by members of Southwest Philadelphia District Services (SPDS), a competing community organization.
Jihad Ali, who presented himself as a member of SPDS and Frankie Francis, a neighborhood funeral home operator who has tried for years to get some of the land for a parking lot, interrupted the meeting repeatedly, demanding more specific information on various development plans and complaining that more elected officials were not present. The disruptions rendered the meeting useless and amplified confusion — perhaps intentionally, given his conflicting roles as member of a civic group and a point man for an interested developer. However, he had a point — Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, the person who would have the most knowledge about all the different plans was conspicuously absent.
I caught up with Blackwell at her office in City Hall today to find out where she was and what was going on with the land in question, which she acknowledged was a crucial link between busy shopping areas on Baltimore Avenue and 52nd Street. Citing a prior engagement, Blackwell said she had "found out about [the meeting] at pretty much the last minute".
"Anybody can call a meeting and if folks want to go, that's fine. ... I don't go unless I'm sure about what I'm saying," said Blackwell, "But I wasn't there last night because I didn't have any notice and wasn't prepared."
David Hincher, chair of CPN's zoning committee later disputed this, citing a two week old email exchange between his group and Blackwell's office manager, Marty Cabry.
When it came to updates on the status of the various lots — there are four tracts of city owned land that various groups have eyed up — Blackwell pled ignorance. She said the lack of movement on any of the lots was a byproduct of conflicting visions and financial troubles on the part of stakeholders.
"There are ideas, but ultimately there are many ideas. Various people have various points of view. Various people want it and have investment dollars or don't," she said.
Blackwell said that the Baltimore Avenue Redevelopment Corporation (BARC), which has been blamed for scaring off development through its various attempts to have the city eminent domain private land in the area, had sought to acquire the same land Francis had wanted to use for parking, stalling both developments. BARC had had problems securing financing for that plan and another proposal across the street.
Francis, who Blackwell described as "the guy with all the money," also owes the city $53,000 in back taxes on nearly a dozen properties, according to the Department of Revenue. When I brought this fact up with Blackwell, she admitted that debt, along with past resistance from the community towards placing a surface parking lot at a prominent intersection, had effectively stalled the funeral home's attempts to get land from the city.
Yet another chunk of city owned land, known locally as "the bamboo lot" because of out of control vegetation on the vacant land, had stirred up neighborhood concerns after it was recently cleared by the city, prompting speculation that it had been sold to a developer. Blackwell told City Paper two weeks ago she thought that land was being earmarked for Greensgrow Farms, which had expressed interest in opening a garden center in the area. However, a source close to Greensgrow said they had been turned down by the city after seeking three separate lots at the intersection. Blackwell said today that she wasn't sure what was happening with that land.
For a councilperson who normally exercises tight control over all aspects of her district, it was strange for Blackwell claim she was out of the loop on the future of a prominent intersection in her district. She blamed CPN for "not wanting any of it," referring to BARC and Francis' plan.
I asked her what she would do if she were in the shoes of frustrated Cedar Park residents.
"They should be trying to find all the information they can, if it's out there, which I'm not sure it is. They should align themselves with one idea or another, and then we can come together in another big meeting and move forward," she said. "It's my job to satisfy everybody and ultimately agree with the majority. And that's part of what's been holding it up."
Hincher said CPN had planned to have a second community meeting on the 24th with Blackwell in attendance — but the councilwoman implied she was unlikely to attend this meeting, and would arrange her own when she "had more details."
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