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Founder of West Philly Earthship sues to keep vacant lot

The vacant lot on which an Earthship, a building made of recycled materials, was begun is now tied up in litigation.
Rashida Ali-Campbell, looks at the vacant lot in West Philly she planned to turned into a community center made of recycled materials. Now she's in litigation over the land. (Sam Newhouse)

A few years ago, Rashida Ali-Campbell's vision for a vacant lot in West Philadelphia caught the attention of sustainability supporters around Philly. The idea of an Earthship on a vacant lot near 41st and Lancaster attracted flocks of volunteers, media attention and even the personal support from the New Mexico-based designers of the Earthship.

But in 2018, old soil-packed tires used as building blocks for the Earthship are overgrown with weeds. The planned foundations of a community center and garden barely go more than a foot high. No crops are growing, and a sign reading "Earthship Philadelphia" has fallen. After discovering the vacant lot she thought she owned was also sold to a real estate group, Ali-Campbell is now immersed in litigation and has had to stand back while her dream project is slowly overgrown.

"It's been hard for me to come out here on the property and look at it and not walk on it," Ali-Campbell, 40, of Yeadon, told Metro, adding that her attorneys told her not to "trespass" on the site. "I am a little sad to see it in this state, knowing that my hands are tied from doing anything about it. … I feel like it's ours, we put so much love and work into it."

An Earthship is a home or structure built entirely of recyclable materials. As designed in the 1970s by Michael Reynolds of Earthship Biotecture, it is intended to create low-cost, zero-impact structures for humans to use. Ali-Campbell, an ordained minister and executive director of LoveLovingLove Inc., wanted to build an Earthship that would serve as a community center and garden, and distribute fresh produce to their West Philadelphia neighbors.

According to Ali-Campbell, the lot's original owner, Thomas L. Miller, deeded her the lot and another vacant lot on 62nd Street (which she had planned to build a "tiny house" on) for her projects after hearing her being interviewed on WURD radio. They met multiple times to confirm the deal, Ali-Campbell said. She showed Metro copies of her contract with Miller, along with notarized documents also establishing the sale. But Ali-Campbell acknowledges not "recording" the deed, and records show Miller struck another deal, for $1, with Urban Property Solutions LLC, in October 2015.

"I was totally shocked when I found out my property was on sale," Ali-Campbell said. "We never really know people's motivations. I pray that the truth comes out and the right thing is done."

Ali-Campbell and her collaborators worked on the Earthship through 2014 and 2015 until finding it listed on a real estate site in 2016. Since then, work on the project has halted.

Attorneys for Miller and Urban Property Solutions (UPS) did not respond to requests for comment. Ali-Campbell's attorneys also declined to comment. No one answered the door at Miller's listed address. Ali-Campbell said she's not sure why the lot was sold again, and the future of the lot is unclear. The value of the lot has risen since 2013 from $9,000 to $52,000 in its most recent city evaluation. But it's a neighborhood that has plenty of development but is short on green spaces.

"To have a creative project like the Earthship happen, or to have another three story mixed-use, commercial ground floor, residential upstairs, when there's already a significant amount of that, I'd rather have an Earthship," said James Wright, director of community development at the local People's Emergency Center. "Given the neighborhood and the level of vacancy, you need innovative ideas for reoccupying a lot of these parcels."

To Ali-Campbell, an Earthship makes perfect sense for Philadelphia, with its estimated 40,000 vacant lots and frequent dumping in public of waste, like old tires.

"You can see the ramifications of what this can do for other vacant properties here in the city, which is why we're not willing to let the idea go," she said. "Our goal is to share sustainability, good health and good living with a community that is in dire need of it."