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Francisville residents turned a vacant lot into a bustling park. But the city has plans to build affordable housing there, and wants it cleared.

“It’s a good problem to have — that there is land that is identified for affordability, and that there are active neighbors that want to see that space thrive.”

Jenna Schieber, of Francisville, helps her son Luca, 3, play hide and seek with their neighbors Semaj Smith, 9, and Tavon Clark, 10, in what was one a vacant lot, but now a neighborhood park.
Jenna Schieber, of Francisville, helps her son Luca, 3, play hide and seek with their neighbors Semaj Smith, 9, and Tavon Clark, 10, in what was one a vacant lot, but now a neighborhood park.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Three months ago, the half-acre city-owned lot on the corner of 15th and Parrish Streets in Francisville was overgrown, with the ground and bushes littered with trash and illegally dumped items.

Today, it’s where dozens of neighborhood residents gather — a bustling green space with a fenced-in dog park, picnic tables, play set, and sandbox.

But the community gathering spot may be short-lived.

Just a few weeks after neighbors cleaned the lot and raised more than $3,000 for the additions, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority left notices around the perimeter: Vacate and remove everything by May 12, or be prosecuted for trespassing.

Neighbors’ actions were taken without the city’s permission and pose “significant liability and insurance issues” for the Redevelopment Authority, which owns the lot, said Jamila Davis, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, the city’s community development organization.

Plus, the land has been identified for a future affordable housing project. Davis said a request for proposal for potential developers “will likely be issued and posted on our website within the next six months.”

The city condemned the 15 properties that made up the lot, which spans addresses 816-32 N. 15th St. and 1500-12 Parrish St., and purchased them for $1 each in 1999. The space has been empty ever since.

“The need for affordable housing is a serious concern and need for Philadelphia and its residents. Building affordable housing is a priority of the City and PHDC,” Davis said in an email statement. Davis said that it’s still unclear how affordable the units will be but that their projects typically aim for resident income caps at 80% of area median income or below.

Neighbors said they planned to meet with the city this week about negotiations on using the land. Davis said that “affordable housing is still our priority and will be the final usage of the land,” but that “interim uses may be discussed if proper insurance and other protocols could be met and maintained” ahead of development.

In this quickly changing section of North Philadelphia, green space and affordable housing are hard to come by. Francisville’s cost of living has risen steeply, with median home prices having increased by 87% since 2012, according to data from Zillow. And constant development means community gathering space is a rarity. Other parks, like the Francisville Recreation Center and Playground, are about a half-mile from this block.

“In some ways it’s a good problem to have — that there is land that is identified for affordability, and that there are active neighbors that want to see that space thrive,” said Corinne O’Connell, chief executive of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia.

“Is there another solution on this, instead of an either-or?” she said.

In a city where more than 84,000 people sit on the public housing wait list, more affordable housing is desperately needed.

“One in four Philadelphians has to make a choice every month: ‘Am I paying for housing or am I paying for food?’” she said.

Residents didn’t know the site was being put aside for affordable housing. They watched the lot languish, and during neighborhood cleanups would fill 20 bags with trash, said Paul Donovan, a 10-year Francisville resident and owner of Crossfit Fairmount. (The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is contracted to maintain the lot, and the last maintenance complaint was filed in January 2019 and was addressed, Davis said.)

In early March, Donovan wondered why it couldn’t be a gathering space.

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Donovan and neighbor Andrew Tsvikevich, who owns Vineyards Cafe around the corner, rallied about 40 neighbors to clean the space, and the fund-raising allowed them to buy about $2,500 in fencing material and lumber. They got a free play set off Facebook, lined the fencing for a dog park, built the tables and benches, and children added rocks and a hand-painted birdhouse to one of the trees. Cava Building Supply in Southwest Center City donated sand for a sandbox.

Neighbors and their dogs enjoy the space, and the community says it has brought them together.

“You can’t have a neighborhood without a place for neighbors to meet,” said Donovan.

Terrill Haigler, a.k.a. Ya Fav Trashman, a city sanitation worker-turned-activist for fair working conditions and cleaner neighborhoods, grew up in Francisville and still lives about two blocks away from the lot — his grandma has owned a home on nearby Carlisle Street since 1968. He remembers 15th Street before the modern-looking, luxury box apartments lined the block, and when the space was “an old, rundown lot.”

Haigler takes his kids to the new park almost every weekend and they love it, he said.

“This neighborhood needs this,” he said. “Isn’t that what Philly is about? This park is a symbol of brotherly love.”

Neighbors say they don’t want to stop affordable housing from being built but wonder if the city could identify a different space for it. They’ve started a petition to save the park that has garnered more than 1,300 signatures.

Philadelphia has over 40,000 vacant lots, about a quarter of which are owned by the city. Vacant lots often fill with trash and become illegal dumping sites.

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Greening vacant lots has been found to reduce violent crime and increase residents’ happiness in their neighborhoods, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in Philadelphia. North Philly residents have faced similar struggles to hold on to vacant land and community garden space as gentrification creeps in.

Semaj Smith, 9, and Tavon Clark, 10, ride their scooters to the park daily. The brothers said they prefer this space to the Francisville Playground, where bullies often picked on them.

“It’s a really good park, there’s not no trouble here,” said Smith.

“Why would you take this beauty away?” Clark said.

“I used to have so many trees on my block, and now they built all the houses there,” Clark said. “They only left us this one block.”