Reversions: A Philadelphia Story
of Land Speculation
Julian P. Hickok
[Reprinted from The Commonwealth, December
It was generally presumed that condemnation proceedings, whereby land
held privately is taken over for use as a public utility, were final
and that the compensation allowed the holder of the title deed was
complete and sufficient to secure for the community in perpetuity all
the benefits to which that land may be put.
A recent item of news in the Philadelphia papers discloses the fact,
however, that our land policy does not comprehend such a thing as
finality in the condemnation of land for public benefits but provides
for reversions to original title holders or their heirs, successors or
assigns. Richard J. Beamish, in the Philadelphia Inquirer of
November 28th reported an instance of lot No. 1625 Market Street
through which the Maris family, of Beverly, New Jersey, are to receive
a fortune from reversion of title of land no longer required by the
Pennsylvania Railroad for the purpose for which it was originally
"No. 1625 was paid for once," states the report, "at
what was then considered to be its full value.
The prices fixed
by those who made the condemnation were sufficiently high to satisfy
"About ten years ago, however, the executives and engineers of
the Pennsylvania set to work in earnest upon a project for the
abandonment of the elevated tracks running into Broad Street Station
and an underground electrical system from West Philadelphia Station to
replace it. They were advised by counsel that it would be necessary to
obtain from heirs of those from whom the land was taken deeds for the
reversion of their interests in these properties.
"Agents of the Pennsylvania therefore set about the delicate job
of picking up these reversions.
Thomas Maris proved a hard nut
to crack. He smelled a rat.
The railroad wanted it.
stood pat. ...He would play a waiting game. Play it he did to such a
good purpose that the lot, which measures 20 feet by 185 feet, is
islanded by properties recaptured by the Pennsylvania from those who
had the reversions. . . .
It is estimated by some of the heirs that the selling pirce
eventually will be well above half a million dollars.
Joseph D. McCoy of this city is a relative of and counsel for the
Maris family. He said yesterday the title to the lot is clear and is
recognized by the Pennsylvania Railroad. He has told a representative
of the road that it will be sold to other interests if the
Pennsylvania shall not meet what he contends are fair terms of the
"The deadlock between the Pennsylvania and Maris family will not
affect in the slightest degree the plans for removal of the 'Chinese
Wall' and completion of the immense improvement of which that removal
is a part. It is merely a hurdle that must be leaped by the railroad
if it wishes to have possession of' that entire block."
When is a doer not a doer? When is compensation not compensation? The
answer is: When there is opportunity to play "dog in the manger"
and hold up "immense improvements" until the "terms of
the heirs" - "above half a million dollars" - are met.
This is just another phase of our foolish land policy in which the
public refuses, or at least neglects, to take its rightful inheritance
or earnings. Under the "single tax" plan, there would be no "reversions"
except to public ownership to be released under similar provisions on
a rental basis, according to the actual value, to the benefit of the
public. This would not require any communistic plan of taking over the
land for public administration. The collection of the full rent of the
land for public benefits would automatically absorb all selling value
and make reversions to private interests worthless except for use.
In the instance cited above it is acknowledged that "only the
rising tide of real estate values in Market Street west of Broad
street can determine how much the heirs will receive from this lot for
which the Maris family once received what they considered a full
price." The evidence is unmistakable. The heirs had done nothing
to swell "the rising tide of real estate value" except to
reside in another State.
The combined industry and activities of the community together with
the mutual interests of the community and the railroad had caused the
increase in value. The railroad contemplated improving the community
by removing an unsightly structure commonly referred to as the "Chinese
Wall" and to put into operation a greatly improved service to the
advantage of the general public. The railroad requires the original
property, purchased from the Virginia title holders under the right of
eminent domain, in order to complete the project.
Under our present land policy, those who are responsible for the
increase in land value receive no compensation at all and in fact have
to pay to those who have contributed nothing, the sum of over half a
million dollars at an annual interest charge of $30,000, in order to
secure much needed community improvements. The conclusion should be
self-evident. All benefits from increased value of the land should go
into the public treasury for the public benefit.