Changing Skyline: Building owners share similar cases of deadly neglect

An earlier composite photo of Market Street between 21st and 22d Streets. The now-collapsed portion of the block is to the right. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
An earlier composite photo of Market Street between 21st and 22d Streets. The now-collapsed portion of the block is to the right. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 07, 2013

Richard Basciano and the late Samuel A. Rappaport were friends, business partners, and slumlords. Both rose from humble beginnings to become real estate speculators extraordinaire. They scooped up blighted properties in Philadelphia and sat on them for years while the structures crumbled, eventually selling them at huge markups to be developed by others.

Now they have something else in common. Both owned buildings that killed.

While the circumstances of the two fatal accidents are very different, the cases are linked by more than just the two men's complex relationship; the tragedies reveal the city's inability to enforce basic building safety. And it's not just the Nutter administration. For more than 30 years, every mayor - Street, Rendell, Goode, Green - has exhibited a stunningly high level of tolerance for the blight the two men wrought.

Basciano, 87, who still likes to practice his boxing moves, was in the midst of razing a row of poorly kept properties on Market Street when an unsupported party wall gave way Wednesday and tumbled onto the Salvation Army thrift store next door, killing six people. Turns out Basciano's contractor has a criminal record.

In Rappaport's case, he was already in the grave when his killer building struck. In 1997, the bolts on an 18-foot-tall "Park" sign came loose from a garage his estate owned at Broad and Pine Streets. It plunged onto the sidewalk, striking Common Pleas Court Judge Berel Caesar, out for a walk. The judge died four days later. At the time, Basciano was the executor for Rappaport's estate.

After the tragedy, the Department of Licenses and Inspections promptly announced it was launching an investigation into the condition of the estate's hundreds of properties. We heard similar promises a year ago, after a blaze in a neglected Kensington mill owned by the Lichtenstein family claimed two firefighters' lives. Want to bet we'll hear the same clarion call again this week?

By the time of his death in 1994, Rappaport had racked up more than 200 violation notices from L&I. Not only did the department rarely follow up, another agency - the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. - lent him money to buy more vacant buildings. Rappaport, it should be noted, was generous to mayoral campaigns.

The city was just as kind to Basciano. In 2010, when the operator of the Forum Theater porn house wanted to enlarge one of Basciano's Market Street properties, the city zoning board gave the green light for a bigger red-light district. The expansion was stopped only after neighborhood groups took the case to court.

Years after Caesar was killed by Rappaport's building, Basciano moved into Symphony House on South Broad Street, which provided a straight-on view of the site but clearly no lessons.

Of course, Rappaport and Basciano are hardly the only speculators who have left a trail of neglect across the city. Given the thousands of hollowed-out structures gradually coming apart at the seams, it's amazing that more lives haven't been claimed over the years by killer buildings.

Rappaport and Basciano were never indiscriminate collectors of crumbling relics. They had a keen eye for identifying derelict diamonds in the right spot.

Rappaport (not to be confused with the former state representative of the same name) assembled whole blocks of rundown properties that were later acquired at hefty prices for the construction of the Convention Center, the commuter rail tunnel, and Liberty Place. He made $7.5 million on the Liberty towers alone.

Basciano was not quite so adept, although he did just fine in his speculation. Roughly two decades ago, he told me he'd acquired the better part of the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market from Herman Benn, an owner of Nate Ben's Reliable furniture store.

Just across the Schuylkill from 30th Street Station, the two blocks should have been a shining gateway to the rising office towers on Market Street. Instead, Basciano stuck with the Rappaport program.

Basciano, once involved in a Times Square porn business, tolerated his mini-red light district on Market Street until he had a change of heart last year. Explaining his plans in a December interview, he told me it was finally the right moment to cash in on Center City's renaissance. But to market his property, he first had to clear away the mess. The city approved the demolition permits.

Then everything came crashing down, taking six more innocent lives.

Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, or on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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