Abandoned factories pose a problem in reviving Philly areas

Posted: May 17, 2012

After the owner of Gryphin Coatings closed his Port Richmond plant, an army of scrappers and vandals broke out the windows, kicked in the doors, and carted off just about every piece of salable metal.

Residents lived in constant fear of environmental catastrophe or a disastrous fire, especially after a scavenger caused a chemical leak that forced the evacuation of several homes.

"Literally, every day it just got worse and worse," said Patty-Pat Kozlowski, president of the local civic association. "No security, no fence, no nothing. I said, 'Something bad's going to happen.' "

The saga eventually came to a happy end - the city demolished the factory in December - but the fallout from Philadelphia's long manufacturing decline continues to vex nearly every neighborhood.

The potentially disastrous effects of aged, empty factories was cast in stark relief last month, when firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney died in a collapse during a fire at a century-old former hosiery mill in Kensington.

That was one of at least six large fires - some calamitous - in nearby vacant factories in the last two decades. One neighborhood activist likens the buildings to "bombs waiting to go off."

In Philadelphia's ongoing transition from its industrial past, there may be no better indicator of that progress - or lack thereof - than the state of its old factories.

Across the city, they may stand as symbols of rebirth - converted to condos, office space, artist lofts - or as reminders and agents of decline, attracting crime, contributing to blight, and frustrating efforts at renewal.

The city does not keep data on the number of vacant factories. But Kevin Gillen, vice president of Econsult and an expert in the city's real estate market, conducted a search of city property records at The Inquirer's request.

He found 2,808 parcels classified as either vacant industrial land or industrial land with a building that was in below-average to inferior condition. Given that many city property records are outdated, the true number could be different.

Whatever the true number, hulking and crumbling factories with uncertain futures are frequent fixtures of the working-class neighborhoods they once sustained.

"Everyone wants this to happen overnight, but it deteriorated over 50 years," said Sandy Salzman, whose New Kensington Community Development Corp. has worked for nearly three decades in a neighborhood that once embodied the city's reputation as the "workshop of the world."

"It can take about that long to turn it around," she said. "That's why it's so important to stay on top of these [buildings] so they don't deteriorate."

Urban pirates

The Aramingo Crossing shopping center sits near the Delaware waterfront at the borders of Port Richmond, Bridesburg and Frankford, still one of the city's heavy industrial areas.

A gleaming new Wal-Mart opened there last month, joining a Lowe's to anchor the immaculately landscaped development. A Five Below opened last week.

The $45 million project has brought 600 new jobs, according to the local business association. All of it sits on land that used to be home to the Tioga Pipe Supply Co.

This is one of the best places to witness the city's transition - and the battles that come with change. The area remains dotted with vacant factories and suffers from the problems they attract.

At the Chick-Fil-A that opened at Aramingo Crossing in 2010, scrappers have removed the $700 automatic toilet flusher and taken the bathroom's brass drain cover.

The owner, Oscar Fittipaldi, eyes the nearest culprit across East Butler Street - a boarded-up meatpacking plant, a frequent host to the usual cast of urban pirates.

"I cannot tell you how many people were living there," said the Argentinian former Merchant Marine captain. "The magnitude of the unsafe conditions of that building are very, very significant."

In January, a scavenger removing pipes at the plant set off a leak from an ammonia tank. Fire marshals twice ordered the Chick-Fil-A evacuated that day.

"They are harboring vultures there - that's the kindest word I can use," Fittipaldi said. As he spoke, men on a hydraulic lift were hanging new plywood over the plant's windows. Steven Lipoff, who owns the building with his brother Larry, said the two-week job to seal the building - yet again - cost $35,000.

"They just finished," Lipoff said by phone earlier this month. "My brother looked at me and said, 'I bet somebody's broken in already.' "

The building, which housed the Lipoff family business, Penn Packing/Butler Foods, was built in the 1950s. More than a decade ago, the Lipoffs started renting the space to moving and storage companies, but those tenants left after an arsonist destroyed one of the buildings and damaged another.

Steven Lipoff said he had to borrow $200,000 to bring the property back to code, and scrappers have since removed "every drop of metal."

"I own that building. I have a responsibility to keep that building safe," he said. "We dip into our pockets every year, hoping that people will come in and be interested in the property."

Lucky for the Lipoffs - and their neighbors - the plant sits in a developing area. The Lipoffs had a deal to turn the plot into a Marshalls, but it fell through in 2008 as the economy tanked.

Steven Lipoff said that interest had returned and that he hoped to complete a deal this year.

"I understand the frustration," he said. "The property owners are the last ones who want these buildings to sit and deteriorate."

A developer's perspective

Perhaps no one in Philadelphia knows more about developing old industrial properties than Carl Dranoff, who has done major apartment conversions in Manayunk, Center City, and Camden.

The buildings are alluring, he said, for their high ceilings, large windows, and industrial architecture, and they provide a big canvas for the developer's imagination.

But in tough economic times, banks are more selective in their lending, especially for complicated projects such as factory conversions.

The owners of the Buck hosiery building - where the firefighters died last month - bought the mill in 2009 and got a zoning variance to convert it to 81 apartments.

Then, nothing. One of the owners, Michael Lichtenstein, told the website Hidden City before the fire that the project was "stuck."

The owners, who owe the city $385,000 in back taxes on 31 properties, have not spoken publicly since the fire, whose cause is unknown.

During the last real estate boom, developers and speculators snatched up buildings in outlying areas, hoping the wave would reach them.

"It might not be for today, which is probably what happened with the building in question," Dranoff said. "Its time hadn't come yet."

At Ruth and Somerset Streets in Kensington, Michael Simons hoped to turn the former Orinoka Mills into lofts or studio space, said his attorney, Richard Malmed.

Once a complex of buildings erected between 1890 and 1920, Orinoka Mills had its own rail spur, coal shed, and stables. The view from a remaining five-story structure, is "amazing," Salzman said.

But the area, a block off Kensington Avenue, is the very definition of "outlying." The neighborhood is saturated with prostitution and drugs.

"If we were to propose some of the uses, like a halfway house, the neighborhood would oppose us," Malmed said. "On the other hand, we haven't attracted some of the upscale uses, like artist lofts."

Salzman's New Kensington CDC tried to do a deal for the building, and Miles & Generalis, the prime creators of the Callowhill Loft District, expressed fleeting interest, Malmed said.

Meanwhile, the old textile complex continued to fall apart - literally - racking up code violations and liens for court-ordered cleanups and demolitions. The property now has more than $844,000 worth of nuisance liens stretching back to 1992, according to the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The city filed in March to take the property to sheriff's sale and could bid the cost of the liens to take possession.

Malmed was skeptical the city would take ownership, because then "it's the city's problem," he said.

The city has discussed deeding the property to New Kensington if the organization can find funding. New Kensington previously converted the old Beatty's Mills nearby into Coral Street Arts House, which combines low income housing and artist work space.

"We have not been able to get that property, so it just sits," Salzman said. "It was a very frustrating process."

Ghostly buildings

Anyone who has taken Amtrak from New York might see Philadelphia as a city of blown-out, dead factories.

The rail corridor was once a desirous location for manufacturers, but the ghostly buildings they left have not had a second life.

In 2010, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. published a massive study on the city's industrial landscape.

One of its conclusions: "The economics of reuse are very difficult" for multiple-story vacant and underutilized factories, said PIDC president John Grady. Typically erected with reinforced concrete, the buildings would be expensive to demolish. They also sit on relatively small footprints that would yield little developable land.

"You have to figure out a way to break the economic puzzle," he said. "Is there a need for public investment to solve the market problem?"

The results along North American Street - where the federal government poured millions into an empowerment zone to lure industry - were mixed, Grady said.

But he said there were no incentives for developers to go into former industrial areas, such as the Amtrak corridor, that are not clear candidates for a Dranoff-style makeover.

At the southern gateway to North American Street, however, sits the Crane Arts Building, the kind of creative-class development that often has revived neighborhoods.

David Gleeson and his partners turned the Crane Plumbing distribution center, built in 1905 on a triangular lot, into 40 artist studio and exhibition spaces, opening in 2005.

Assuming New York remains the center of the art business, Gleeson sees Philadelphia as ideal for artists and artisanal manufacturing - "Philadelphia is much more affordable," he said.

In recent years, John Pomp Studios, making handcrafted glass and furniture, opened in North Philadelphia, and the Globe Dye Works in Port Richmond was converted into a creative compound of work and production space.

And two Brooklyn-based groups, 3rd Ward and Greenpoint Manufacturing & Design, are engaged in major renovations of former industrial spaces in Kensington.

The question, Grady and Gleeson said, is how deep the market is for artistic reuses of the city's abundant empty spaces.

"It's hard to tell," Grady said. "It's not a traditional [use] . . . It's not Class A office space in Center City."

Grady also argues for keeping industrial zoning not only in the city's traditional industrial tracts, but in areas that are morphing into new uses.

"You want to preserve the jobs and the opportunity for jobs, and to manage that in a way that allows for an appropriate mix," he said. "That's a good strategy."

Kozlowski said her neighborhood would welcome a new industrial use on the Gryphin site. The owner, Nicholas Nehez, said he would like to redevelop the lot.

Nehez knows the factory caused problems for the neighborhood, but he said the city had to take some of the blame. The chemical spill happened after a contractor hired by the city to clean out the factory left behind 1,000 gallons of sanding sealer.

Nehez also was embroiled in an ownership dispute with his mortgage-holder, and they hired dueling contractors to remove equipment. He said the quarrel created a free-for-all of scrapping that he could not control.

"We had the building sealed at one point," he said. "And people came with a tow truck and literally ripped the door off the frame."

Kozlowski, however, places the blame squarely on Nehez for letting the factory become a "playground" for squatters, junkies and prostitutes.

"The way he let his property go, it was one of the worst things that happened to my neighborhood," she said. "He closed it up and literally walked away."

 


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham

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