He wants to build in Point Breeze; not all residents like the plans

Real-estate developer Ori Feibush has become a lightning rod in Point Breeze.
Real-estate developer Ori Feibush has become a lightning rod in Point Breeze. (SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: March 22, 2012

BY NOW, they know the name Ori Feibush in Point Breeze. Some praise it. Others curse it.

Feibush, 27, is a real-estate developer. In the last four years, by his estimate, his company - OCF Realty - has built more than 150 homes in the neighborhood. Now he wants to build a coffee shop and a pharmacy, to revitalize a long-neglected corridor.

But not everyone likes his plans. Windows on buildings owned by Feibush have been shot out. A dead pitbull was tossed onto the steps of his Point Breeze home. And a flier circulating recently in the neighborhood featured Feibush's face on the body of Mr. Burns, the wealthy boss on "The Simpsons." It read: "IS HE Preying on the Poor and minority [sic]?"

The upstart Temple grad, originally from Upper Dublin, has put a human face - and thus a giant bull's-eye - on the angst that often sweeps across a well-established urban neighborhood in the midst of gentrification, pitting modernization against residents' fears that they will be priced out of their homes.

Max Kirkeberg, a geography professor at San Francisco State University and a leading expert on gentrification, said the tension and unrest taking place in Point Breeze isn't so unusual, but what's different is that a single developer is attracting so much ire.

"When you have somebody from outside the neighborhood who is changing that neighborhood into something that's so different that people wonder if there will be a place for them, it's understandable that there's antagonism," he said.

Developer John Longacre, who has had his own difficulties building in the neighborhood, said the backlash against Feibush's properties is standard practice there.

"The problem in Point Breeze is it seems everything gets opposition," Longacre said. "There's a small, vocal minority that tend to hold up the process. It makes it a very unfriendly place, a risky proposition."

Tiffany Green, a member of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, one of the groups that has fought many of Feibush's projects, said his building of market-rate homes will raise the taxes on nearby houses, pushing out longtime residents with low or fixed incomes.

"We're being disrespected," she said during an interview in the group's lawyer's office. "If someone comes into your house and wants to move your furniture around and tells you how to put your curtains up, how would you feel?"

She and fellow Concerned Citizen Theressa McCormick said they knew nothing about the personal attacks on Feibush.

"They have facts. There's no need to get down and use caricatures or dead dogs or get into the gutter," said their lawyer, John Del Casale. "We are trying to keep this as a reasoned, intelligent conversation because we are concerned with the community."

Feibush, who has lived in Point Breeze since 2006, says he's concerned about the community, too. That's why he wants to improve it.

"It's my livelihood," he said. "I do it both to make money and create impact. They look at my efforts as basically 'Johnny-Come-Lately.' They ask where I was 30 years ago, 40 years ago, when the neighborhood was declining. The reality is I wasn't alive."

He said no one has been pushed out of the neighborhood because of his developments.

"The fliers, the language, the propaganda, it's 100 percent fear-mongering," he said.

An empty avenue

Point Breeze, just south of Center City, is bordered roughly by Washington Avenue and Broad, Moore and 25th streets. Its once-thriving commercial strip, Point Breeze Avenue, is now a mass of empty buildings and vacant lots.

Those who claim that the new development will push out longtime residents, many of whom are African-American, point to the neighborhood just on the other side of Washington Avenue as a test case.

In that neighborhood, which used to be called the Graduate Hospital area, the redevelopment boom began before Point Breeze's and has produced even more extreme changes.

In the larger census tract known as Southwest Center City, the black population is less than half of what it was in 2000. Meanwhile, the white population of that area has doubled.

Point Breeze has had demographic changes, too, since development began. According to 2010 census data, Point Breeze's total population (23,585) fell 8.5 percent from 2000. But its white population (2,723) increased by 38 percent. Conversely, the African-American population (16,034) dropped 20 percent.

A whole latte problems

One example of the challenges facing a Point Breeze developer is the saga of the coffee shop that Feibush wants to open at 20th and Federal streets, at the foot of Point Breeze Avenue.

Feibush bought the property in 2008. He poured $150,000 into rehabbing it into a first-floor commercial space with four apartments above.

Four years later, there's still no coffee shop. A candidate for state office is renting the first-floor space, and the apartments also are occupied.

One reason given by the Concerned Citizens and others for opposing the coffee shop is that it sits across the street from a fire station, and traffic generated by the coffee shop could block emergency vehicles.

"You can create a safety issue," said Del Casale, the Concerned Citizens lawyer, who noted that a five-minute delay in response time could mean the difference between life and death.

Feibush called that reasoning "petty politics" and "insane."

"There's no intuitive reason why having a coffee shop on a corner that's been derelict for probably 70 or 80 years would be a bad thing," he said. "To my knowledge, it would be the first new business on Point Breeze Avenue in 40 or 50 years."

He noted that when Concerned Citizens spoke at a City Council meeting against the development of three-story homes and roof decks in Point Breeze, they argued that the taller buildings could encourage crime because would-be burglars could use structures to access the chimneys of neighboring two-story homes.

"That was a real argument - that somebody could squeeze down your chimney and steal your things," he said. "I'd love to know the number of times in Philadelphia somebody has sneaked through a chimney to break into a property. If it's even once, I would be impressed."

The coffee-shop case is before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said he supports the coffee shop but understands the concerns of the anti-development residents.

"There are fears and concerns about the [effect of] high-priced developments on people's taxes and the perception that there's a lack of affordable housing in the area," he said.

Down on the pharmacy

More dramatic has been the battle behind Feibush's attempts to build a pharmacy with 13 apartments above on the now-empty corner of Point Breeze Avenue and Titan Street.

Originally, Feibush said, he wanted to put a grocery store on the site, but responding to feedback from the neighborhood, he found a pharmacy willing to move in instead.

In January, the mixed-use development was to be voted on by community members at a meeting of South Philadelphia HOMES the nonprofit organization that is also the neighborhood zoning committee.

(Claudia Sherrod, executive director of South Philadelphia HOMES declined to be interviewed about Feibush's projects, noting there'd been a lot of "slander" in the local media.)

After an initial hearing was postponed when some community members complained that they hadn't been properly notified, South Philadelphia HOMES agreed to postpone the vote.

Before the next meeting a few weeks later, the flier depicting Feibush as a Simpsons character spread through the neighborhood. It calls Feibush's blog, nakedphilly.com, a place "where they talk about black people who stand up for their community with petty name-calling." It warns that, "As Spike Lee says, 'It is time to wake up.' "

The follow-up meeting drew hundreds of residents. Television cameras waited outside. Police were on hand to maintain calm.

But the meeting was anything but. Many residents took to the microphone not to talk about the agenda item but to vent frustrations about the development in their neighborhood. Green proposed that Feibush put medical offices above the pharmacy, not apartments.

"I don't think it's right that anybody's trying to come here and take our houses, take our homes," an obviously emotional resident told MyFoxPhilly, which promoted the story under the banner "Development and Racial Tension."

A vote of residents was taken, and although Feibush alleges vote-tampering, the project eventually got an approval letter from South Philadelphia HOMES It is now before the Zoning Board and Councilman Johnson said he supports the plan.

Feibush said that no matter the outcome, he could continue to develop in Point Breeze.

"Part of it is that it's our business, but part of it is that we want to see the neighborhood through," he said. "I really want that neighborhood to get better."

- Staff writer Will Bunch

contributed to this report.

Contact Natalie Pompilio at 215-854-2595 or pompiln@phillynews.com.

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