When veteran community developer Angel Rodriguez joined the board of the Philadelphia Land Bank nearly three years ago, he treated the quasi-public agency as a start-up company.
In some ways, it still is. The Land Bank was created in 2013 after years of wrangling and opened in January 2014 with fanfare, as a one-stop shop for people to acquire vacant city-owned properties — with the goal of putting them to productive uses. It's not as easy as it sounds.
"You're getting a lot of agencies that have their own system," Rodriguez said of the various agencies that at the time and even today own thousands of properties throughout the city. "You have this objective and goal and what you are trying to do is streamline and have one type of system."
On Monday, Rodriguez, 50, took the helm of the Land Bank, becoming its first full-time executive director, as the agency ramps up its acquiring and selling of vacant land. He will manage a staff of 13 with a $4.8 million budget, implementing the policies he helped set as a board member.
With 43,000 vacant properties in the city (nearly half are tax-delinquent), the Land Bank can bundle private and publicly owned vacant properties for redevelopment or green space, such as a community garden.
Since its inception, the Land Bank has acquired about 2,000 publicly owned properties, and sold 196. It plans to start acquiring privately owned vacant land that is tax-delinquent, and ramp up the number of sales to more than 300 by June 2018. Some argue that is still too low.
"He has a sense of what the challenges are," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, who was a driving force behind getting the Land Bank established. "So, the fact that he wants to go from one seat to the other, he can't say he doesn't know what's going on."
Rodriguez, who will be paid $122,579, says he is ready for the challenge. Having worked in the for-profit and nonprofit development worlds, most recently at Asociacion Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), Rodriguez says he has a good understanding of the needs of various parts of the city.
"I view the Land Bank as a collaboration," he said in an interview Thursday. "Everyone has an opinion about their neighborhood. Everyone has an opinion on how land can be best used. So, how do we facilitate that?"
Raised in the Bronx, Rodriguez landed in the Philadelphia area as a student at Haverford College. After graduation, he went to work for Philadelphia-based Resources for Human Development, focusing on crisis intervention for youth with mental-health issues and who were living in group homes. He then worked at YouthBuild Philadelphia, which is where he got his first taste of the positive impact of rehabbing vacant properties. He went on to do some for-profit developments and then back to the nonprofit sector.
While he was working as APM's vice president of community and economic development, he was tapped to join the Land Bank board.
To criticism that the Land Bank has been too slow at getting off the ground, Rodriguez said he doesn't like to "overpromise." Getting the Land Bank in order had numerous legal and operational hurdles, he said.
"Once we get it right, it's about increasing efficiencies," he said.
His first order of business as executive director is "staffing up" the Land Bank. Then he wants to clear what he says are many expressions of interests for public land that have not yet received responses.
Rodriguez also wants an agreement with the city, the School District of Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Gas Works that would make it easier for the Land Bank to buy tax-delinquent property at auction without paying liens.
The goal is to acquire 1,650 privately owned tax-delinquent parcels over the next five years. (The agency also plans to acquire another 7,700 properties from other city agencies during that same time frame.)
By 2021, the Land Bank plans to have sold off — or given to nonprofit community groups — nearly 2,000 vacant properties.
Rodriguez said the number might be higher once things are up and running, but he wants to make sure that properties in the pipeline are transferred to people and groups with good plans for them.
"The Land Bank is not just about acquiring and disposing land. It's not a real estate brokerage firm," he said. "It is about obviously the quality of life in Philadelphia. We're taking vacant properties that have been blighting areas and putting them back into productive use. Now, what is that productive use?"