City reclaims property from judge

Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. bought the North Phila. building from the city 14 years ago but has not restored it.

Posted: July 11, 2007

Philadelphia Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. yesterday promised to quickly fix up a dilapidated property in North Philadelphia - the same promise he made when he bought it from the city in 1993.

He was about 14 years too late.

The city's Vacant Property Review Committee unanimously concluded that since Berry had failed to rehab the property, the city should take it back.

"It's substantially deteriorated," board member Melvis Dunbar said of the building. "I'm doubtful that he can do this."

Berry, a Common Pleas Court judge who dabbles in real estate and moonlights as a landlord, bought the property for $7,000 and pledged to fix it up within a year.

Instead, as The Inquirer reported in April, Berry allowed the four-story building at 15th and Poplar Streets to deteriorate into a ruin - one of a string of derelict properties he owns in North Philadelphia. It still sits vacant, with trash strewn on the front sidewalk and pigeons nesting in its rafters.

The city Department of Licenses and Inspections recently declared the building "imminently dangerous."

Berry appeared before the review committee and outlined plans to fix up the four-story building and create 15 one- and two-bedroom apartments. Accompanied by a lawyer and a contractor, Berry said he had been working on the building in the evenings after court and had hired other workers to help him.

While he disputed L&I's contention that the building was imminently dangerous, Berry acknowledged that there were code violations and said he was working to correct them.

He said the project had stalled because he preferred to do the work himself, and had been distracted by other properties in his portfolio that needed his attention.

In recent weeks, Berry has cleared debris from some of his properties. But he still has work to do, neighbors said.

John Edwards, 76, who lives across the street from a vacant property Berry owns on West Erie Avenue, said he called L&I and other city officials on Monday to report piles of trash, broken glass, and rodents on the sidewalk in front of the building.

"There should be a law against this," Edwards said in a phone interview this week. "Why should I look out the window and see all this mess?"

Berry told the committee that he and a work crew had begun to make progress at the Poplar Street property.

"The property was pretty messed up - more messed up than I realized," he said. But work is under way, said Berry: "By the spring of maybe 2009, we can have a substantial amount of work done."

Under questioning from the committee, he acknowledged that he did not have the required permits for the construction work. Nor did he have the required permission from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, he said.

Berry estimated the total cost of the renovations at $175,000. He said he could borrow most of the money through a line of credit on another property - and said his sister had agreed to loan him money if necessary.

Committee members seemed skeptical. Dunbar, for one, pressed for "more realistic" financial projections.

Berry and his lawyer asked for more time to provide that and other information - and more time to complete the project.

But the committee said time had run out.

"Fourteen years is a long time," said board member John Herzins. "I am voting no."


Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.

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