Open for risky business: Phila.'s vacant properties

This four-story building at 1101 Frankford Ave. is supposed to be sealed, but two recent visits found it open. Its owners say their plans are advancing.
This four-story building at 1101 Frankford Ave. is supposed to be sealed, but two recent visits found it open. Its owners say their plans are advancing. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2014

With its broken plywood door and faded graffiti, the former hosiery mill on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia's Fishtown section is a contrast to the quarter-million-dollar townhouses and upscale lofts nearby.

1101 Frankford is not just a four-story eyesore, says Thomas Fasone, who owns an antique lighting shop next door. He rates it a magnet for trouble.

"It's so easy to get into these buildings," says Fasone, who has complained to the city. "They can go in to keep warm, start a fire, do drugs, fall asleep, and a fire breaks out."

The place is supposed to be sealed. But on two recent visits, an Inquirer reporter found it open. The owners have problems, too. One of them, a Drexel Hill man, is accused of dealing marijuana.

The budget Mayor Nutter proposed Thursday includes $2 million for the Department of Licenses and Inspections to hire 27 more inspectors. That help can't come soon enough for monitoring places like 1101 Frankford.

The building is part of an urban ill widely acknowledged but frustrating to cure: thousands of vacant properties, many with absentee owners, that the city has struggled to keep safe and sealed.

L&I tries to inspect them all. City Council has imposed new rules on the owners. Last month, a grand jury cited "a failure of government" in policing another old hosiery mill, in Kensington - where two firefighters died in a 2012 blaze. Jurors recommended steps to prevent such tragedies.

Yet some rules, such as making owners put up bonds in the event the city has to seal or fix up buildings, have proved hard to enforce. The city takes many owners to "Blight Court" for code violations, but the cases take months to decide. And the grand jurors lamented L&I's cost-driven reluctance to take bigger absentee owners to court.

"We are increasing oversight," L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams said. "We are getting the new inspectors to be more proactive than reactive."

The 110-page report said city agencies had not held the Brooklyn owners of the Kensington building accountable. Neighbors had repeatedly complained that the place was a haven for drug users and squatters - a suspected cause of the fire.

Since L&I began its Vacant Property Strategy in 2011, it has inspected some 13,000 privately owned vacant buildings in the city - and still hasn't looked at 5,000.

"We simply do not have the staff or resources to be at every building every day to ensure that property owners are doing what they are legally obligated to do," L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson said.

Even so, she said, inspectors found code violations at more than half the sites inspected. And that was before Nutter budgeted for more inspectors.

Old mill, new owners

Once a bustling 19th-century hosiery mill, more recently an elevator factory, 1101 Frankford was vacant and in disrepair by 2012. That's when new owners bought it at a sheriff's sale, addressed a list of pending violations, and began interior demolition. L&I records listed the 22,000-square-foot building as safely sealed.

But Fasone, who has done business next door since 2009, said he had sometimes sealed it himself - to prevent another fire like the one in Kensington.

"I'm trying to survive here between two vacant buildings," Fasone said.

When a reporter visited last month, the gate to the fence was missing. The front door, which appeared to have been closed with plywood and a lock, was open. So were a few ground-floor windows.

After The Inquirer called the owners and L&I, the property was secured - for a time. On Tuesday night, though, another door was open.

"Again?" asked one of the owners at that night's Fishtown Neighbors Association zoning meeting, where the group made a presentation. He said his first name was Jason but declined to give his full name.

He and co-owner Dennis Frederick said they were also unaware the city had taken them to court.

Plenty of regulations apply to such buildings. Owners of vacant sites larger than 15,000 square feet and zoned for commercial or industrial use must obtain a vacant commercial property license from L&I, keep the place sealed against entry, and put up a minimum $50,000 bond or other security to cover costs if the city has to make repairs.

But L&I has not enforced the bond requirement because owners have had trouble securing them, Swanson said. Because of that, many buildings such as 1101 Frankford are issued a vacant residential property license, with a $150 annual fee, instead of a commercial license, with a $300 fee.

Advocates and lawmakers, such as City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sànchez, who sponsored the 2012 bill that required the bonds, are frustrated the city isn't demanding bonds or other securities from owners. "We've made it inexpensive to speculate," Quiñones Sànchez said, adding that the city spends millions annually fixing up and cleaning such places.

City officials could not say how much owners owe the city altogether for those costs.

In court - eventually

Another complaint from the grand jury: Though violations at the Kensington site were "sent to court," they never reached the judge.

If 1101 Frankford's court history is any indication, that process remains slow.

L&I has brought two cases against Real Estate 1101 Frankford L.L.C., the owners. One is for trash around the site - a case automatically generated Jan. 23 after the third citation was issued for the same problem, Swanson said. A hearing date has yet to be scheduled.

In "Blight Court," where a judge hears cases one day a month as part of Common Pleas Court, the owners were cited for not having functioning doors and windows. Fines are $300 per day per opening. The city's "doors and windows" ordinance requires that in any block at least 80 percent occupied - owners can't just board a place up.

Swanson said that the city's lawyers were preparing the case and that a hearing wasn't likely before April or May.

When cases do get to court, fines are reduced as a condition of fixing up a property. "We don't want your money," she said. "We want you to fix it."

Frederick, whose Drexel Hill home is the business address of 1101 Frankford's owners, was charged in May with leading a ring that Montgomery County prosecutors say smuggled millions of dollars worth of marijuana between California and Philadelphia. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $1 million bail.

On Tuesday night, Frederick told the Fishtown meeting plans for 1101 Frankford were advancing. He and his business partner own other buildings in the city, but this is their biggest project yet - 15 apartments and a ground-floor restaurant.

"We're not doing anything cheap at all," Frederick told residents, who voted to endorse the plan. "That's not what we do."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

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