PHILIDELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – The City Owned lot, neighbors say, was in deplorable shape, thick with weeds and trash. So when a business owner cleaned it up last month, spending more than $20,000 and removing, by his count, more than 40 tons of debris, Point Breeze residents went out of their way to pass 20th and Annin streets to see the changes.
“This was a lot of garbage,” Elaine McGrath said as she took in the carefully tended plantings and wooden benches. “Now it’s gorgeous. I’m excited.”
But not everyone is happy with the alterations – namely, the lot’s owner, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.
Paul D. Chrystie, director of communications at the Office of Housing and Community Development, said it’s a simple matter of trespassing. In an email, he said: “Like any property owner, [the authority] does not permit unauthorized access to or alteration of its property. This is both on principle (no property owner knowingly allows trespassing) and to limit taxpayer liability.”
Ori Feibush, the real-estate developer who cleaned the lot and whose coffee shop backs onto the now-controversial plot, said the authority is making a big deal about this because it doesn’t like him or the properties he’s developed in the neighborhood.
“They don’t like nice things,” he said. “For a private developer to create a garden, it’s a question of who gets credit. To do it without their blessing, you’re basically insulting them.”
In letters and emails, the authority has threatened to take legal action against Feibush. Chrystie said the agency “is actively reviewing its options at this time.”
“They said we need to return it to the condition we found it in immediately,” Feibush said.
That shocks McGrath, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years.
“They liked it filled with garbage and broken glass?” she asked. “I can’t imagine why the city would be upset.”
The Redevelopment Authority owns 1,500 lots, most of which are for sale. The one at 20th and Annin has been available “for a significant period of time,” Chrystie said. The authority has no record of Feibush expressing an interest in the property, he said.
Feibush, owner of OCF Realty, counters that he has submitted seven written requests for either owning or leasing the parcel, has called the authority 24 times and has visited its office four times.
Both sides agree that Feibush went to the authority in early August and said the state of the lot was a threat to him and his neighbors. He was told not to go forward with his plans for the parcel. A few days later, he did anyway.
“Finally out of frustration, I said, ‘I’m going to clean it,’ and that’s when I rustled every possible feather there,” said Feibush, who previously angered some longtime neighborhood residents who fear that gentrification will push them out.
Feibush’s team removed tons of debris, evened out the soil and had the area landscaped by South Philly’s Urban Jungle garden store. They added benches, fences and cherry trees, and redid the sidewalk.
“It looks like it’s Rittenhouse in comparison to what it was,” Feibush said.
Doesn’t matter, the authority says; Feibush was clearly told not to access and alter the lot.
“Mr. Feibush continued his efforts even after PRA told him both verbally and in writing that a) he did not have permission to undertake any such work and b) he ran the risk of losing whatever funds he expended on the work,” Chrystie said in an email.
Here’s what Feibush finds funny about the situation: In the past few years, he’s received three citations from the city fining him for not removing the snow from the sidewalk in front of this lot. Last August, he received a citation for the trash on the lot.
But he doesn’t own the lot. He never did. And now that he’s cleaned the lot, he’s been threatened with legal action.
“They’ve been bad stewards for so many years and suddenly it’s the most critical lot in the world,” he said. “I’m not looking for a thank-you, but I’m not looking for a big F.U.”