A more fitting tribute to fallen firefighters

Dianne Neary, wife of fire Lt. Robert Neary, places flowers at the Living Flame Memorial in Franklin Square last week. Her husband was one of two firefighters killed in a neglected Kensington factory. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Dianne Neary, wife of fire Lt. Robert Neary, places flowers at the Living Flame Memorial in Franklin Square last week. Her husband was one of two firefighters killed in a neglected Kensington factory. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 09, 2012

The recent announcement of plans for a new memorial to Philadelphia’s fallen police and firefighters was, sadly, well timed. Only days before, two Fire Department veterans, Lt. Robert P. Neary and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney, were killed battling a blaze at a forsaken factory building in Kensington.

The new monument promises to be a somber, elegant, and welcome replacement for Franklin Square’s existing Living Flame Memorial. Still, even as the city mourns Neary and Sweeney, the countless blighted buildings that pervade its landscape remain an undignified memorial to their deaths — and a harbinger of future catastrophe.

There are more than 40,000 vacant properties within the city limits, a number so large that it almost defies comprehension, let alone remediation. And though the building that claimed the lives of Neary and Sweeney was owned by three New Yorkers, nearly 13,000 such properties are owned by Philadelphia agencies. The city itself is very much part of the problem, and very much in need of a solution.

Simply forestalling further deterioration of its massive holdings costs Philadelphia some $20 million annually. What’s more, widespread blight depresses Philadelphia property values by an estimated $3.6 billion. These eyesores also represent a huge proportion of Philadelphia’s tax delinquencies. And, in a time of fiscal crisis, they burden fire and police services that have already been stretched thin.

Mayor Nutter has been duly outraged about the Kensington fire, excoriating the property’s owners and urging a criminal investigation. City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez has proposed legislation that would require empty industrial buildings to be sealed with steel security panels to prevent trespassing.

While a tough, prosecutorial tone and more stringent safety measures are surely appropriate in the wake of such a disaster, a merely reactive approach will never amount to more than a Band-Aid on an epidemic. We need policies that will change the city’s physical, fiscal, and psychological landscape.

“Land bank” legislation proposed by Quiñones-Sánchez and Councilman Bill Green would allow the city to acquire tax-delinquent properties more rapidly, circumvent cumbersome sheriff’s sales, consolidate vacant real estate holdings, and provide for more fluid disposition to responsible developers, many of whom are eager to trade good money for bad property. However, as Patrick Kerkstra reported for PlanPhilly, the Nutter administration appears to prefer a less robust approach that wouldn’t address the city’s failure to deal with rampant property-tax delinquency. And both proposals would subject property sales to the political whims of district Council members.

In the days following the horrific Kensington fire, I had an opportunity to spend some time with the family of Lt. Neary. Amid grief, their foremost concern was that no other lives be lost in similar tragedies. City leaders seem to take this concern seriously, but we must urge them to work toward a solution to the broader problem of abandoned properties that has plagued Philadelphia for far too long.

When Neary’s and Sweeney’s names fade from the news cycle, as they are bound to do, it’s heartening to know that an impressive new memorial will commemorate their sacrifice. Ultimately, though, the most fitting tribute we can pay to the brave men and women who risk and sometimes lose their lives protecting our property is to make sure that property is worth protecting.

Ajay Raju is the managing partner of Reed Smith in Philadelphia. He can be reached at araju@reedsmith.com.

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