There's a lot of trouble brewing next to a coffee house in a fast-developing neighborhood.
Ori Feibush, a real estate developer, has turned a trash-strewn city-owned lot — vacant for roughly 30 years — into a welcoming spot for customers of his month-old corner cafe, where they can enjoy their fair-trade organic java and pastries from local bakeries.
It may sound like a win-win, but the now-sparkling urban respite has angered city officials. They say Feibush shouldn't have done work on a lot he doesn't own or rent, shouldn't be using taxpayer-owned property to benefit his business and should have played by the rules.
Feibush said the city has rebuffed his overtures to buy the 20-by-100-foot lot in Point Breeze, a rowhouse neighborhood southwest of downtown Philadelphia where he has lived since 2006. So he said he spent at least $20,000 to remove 40 tons of trash and to add planters, tables and landscaping to it.
"This property was in disrepair for years, decades, and the city did absolutely nothing," he said after happening upon a Friday afternoon news conference being held by city officials. "I'm going to continue to make every effort to purchase the property."
Feibush set up a new blog Friday called pleasefixphilly.com and posted photos, emails, text messages and documents dating back more than a year that he said prove he contacted officials repeatedly about the lot.
Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority head Ed Covington said the agency had no record of those inquiries and added that Feibush cleared the space after being ordered by the city to cease work.
"Mr. Feibush himself purchased three publicly owned properties earlier this year, so he knows how the process works," authority spokesman Paul Chrystie said.
Besides Feibush, three others have expressed interest in buying the lot, which is worth more than $50,000.
A bidding process will begin for interested buyers "in the coming weeks" and in the meantime, the city would allow the lot to remain as is, Covington said.
"We are not going to take any further action with this property other than make it available for sale," he said.
Business owners in similar situations pay the city rent to use lots next to their properties, but Feibush is essentially using public property to benefit his business at taxpayers' expense, Chrystie said.
"It is not fair to either the taxpayers or the potential buyers who have played by the rules for Mr. Feibush to attempt to acquire the lot simply by occupying it," he said.
A group of nearly a dozen longtime residents stood with Feibush on Friday and applauded his efforts.
"He took a blighted situation with trees and trash and people leaving all kinds of garbage and made it into something presentable," Ernest Ligons said. "How can you argue with that?"
Commenters on Facebook and local websites also were generally supportive of Feibush's efforts, but some acknowledged the city's concerns were valid, even if it took a wrongheaded approach. Last weekend, a group of neighbors held an event at the coffee shop to celebrate what they described on Facebook as "a thriving, safe community space."
Development has been fraught with tension in recent years in Point Breeze, where a flurry of new homes continue rising on vacant lots and dilapidated buildings are being gutted and rehabbed. The changes have pitted some longtime residents fearing gentrification and higher property taxes against new neighbors whose pricey houses are raising property values.
Feibush, whose OCF Realty has built more than 150 homes in the neighborhood, has himself become a polarizing figure to some. But neighbors visiting the cleared lot Friday praised his efforts.
"I understand he intruded on a property they claim was not his to intrude on but ... as a neighbor, as a homeowner in this neighborhood, I applaud what he's doing," Ligons said. -- (AP)
A bill hailed by some as a bulwark against gentrification and criticized by others as government overreach passed unanimously Thursday in City Council, paving the way for the city to seize 43 properties in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia.
“The wants of the developers who do not live in the Point Breeze community, are not invested in the community, have no interest in the working with those already in the community and whose sole purpose is to make money on a community, cannot, should not and will not, while I’m the councilman, trump the needs of those who live in the Point Breeze community,” said the bill’s sponsor, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who thanked his colleagues for their unanimous support.
Most of the properties slated for seizure under eminent domain are in a few blocks near Washington Avenue and, according to the bill, will be reserved for residential re-use as affordable housing, recreational or related uses.
Point Breeze — long a predominantly Black neighborhood — is a rapidly gentrifying area. Real estate values have been rising as Center City pushes south. Long-time residents are concerned about the effects of rising values which will force up property taxes. Johnson’s bill was seen by many residents as way to fight back.
It has caused a citywide furor creating a divide that pits developers against residents and is often also seen in racial terms, pitting white newer residents against Black long-term residents.
One developer, Ori Feibush, who, after a well-publicized battle with the city’s Redevelopment Authority, has become a symbol of the fight, said the bill’s passage was not a surprise but that it would come with unintended consequences.
“What this bill does is take away the opportunity for affordable housing in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a list of properties that will absolutely go to stifle private market development in that area. It will actually increase the prices of all the current properties for sale by stifling available supply.”
Johnson sponsored the bill in Council, but in a statement just before the vote pointed out that it was an administration proposal and was part of a larger re-vitalization plan that included redevelopment in Mantua, Nicetown and Point Breeze, which have been designated as blighted areas and are eligible for federal redevelopment funds.
He added that he has worked with developers to scale back the original bill, which called for the seizure of 93 properties — 80 of which were privately owned. There are 311 blighted or abandoned properties in Point Breeze.
In the bill approved Thursday, only 17 privately owned properties were included.
“Most of those 17 are blighted and have liens and are tax delinquent in excess of $165,000,” Johnson said.
He told council that his office had reached out to all of those property owners while tailoring the bill and “no one responded.”
According to Johnson, his opponents have mischaracterized the bill and that opposition comes from many areas of the city - but very little from the affected neighborhood.
“People are being told that properties that are being actively developed are being snatched by the city which is a lie - one that I suspect has brought many people out here in opposition of the bill today,” he said. “Although I won’t get involved in the petty politics and motivations behind the opposition to this bill, I do support quality development in the Point Breeze Community, in which I reside.”
Twelve people spoke before council voted on the measure, four in opposition. In an interesting detail, Johnson’s former opponent for his city council seat, realtor Barbara Capozzi sat in the audience with opponents of the bill.
The bad blood between the two groups was evident in council chambers with Council President Darrell Clarke occasionally having to shush the audience.
One long-time resident summed up her support simply.
“Developers are only here for the money,” said Patricia Wyait, a Point Breeze resident. “We live here. So, I personally am for the bill because it helps those of us who cannot afford the developers.”
Another man, a resident of West Philadelphia, opposed the move based on his experiences in his own neighborhood.
“They came in 16 years ago and they tore down these properties and they really didn’t fix no properties in our neighborhood,” said Marvin Robinson. “I’m sure it’s not going to be different in any other neighborhood.”
Squilla says it would benefit area schools
In a move that’s likely to be controversial, city Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill on Thursday that would use a digital billboard to generate money for local schools.
“Times are tough right now,” Squilla said.
He expected that advertising revenues from the plan could generate as much as $500,000 annually.
Those funds would be administered by a specially appointed board which would allocate the money to area schools. He said 20 percent of the total generated funds would go to the proposed Center City North Improvement Fund and 75 percent would be given to education programs.
“Each school in that area would be able to apply for things they needed for the school, and then it would be voted on by the board, only to public schools in that immediate vicinity,” Squilla said.
His plan calls for the billboard to be placed on the roof of the former Electric Factory at Seventh and Callowhill streets.
He admitted the idea was likely to generate opposition.
“That’s why we have open hearings,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get all of their ideas vetted and if changes need to be made, we could make some changes.”
A proposal for a similar digital billboard in the same general area generated a local outcry before Squilla took his seat, and the plan was eventually scrapped by his predecessor, Frank DiCicco. It did not include provisions for generating school revenue.
In other Council news, the Committee on Rules this week approved a measure sponsored by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson that would allow the city to use eminent domain to condemn 28 properties in the Point Breeze section.
Under the proposal, which could come up for a vote by the end of the month, the city would authorize the Redevelopment Authority to condemn the properties and build affordable housing on the sites.
Developers – among them Ori Feibush, who garnered national headlines for his battle with the city over his cleanup of a trash-filled vacant lot – have asked Council to shoot down the measure.
Johnson contends the move is a way to make sure that Point Breeze remains an affordable neighborhood.
“There is a place for affordable housing in Point Breeze,” Johnson told the Tribune recently. The “sole purpose is to make sure we stabilize the area, so that as neighborhood gentrifies, we have a level of housing for everyone. Everyone should have the ability to buy a home in Point Breeze.”