A political scuffle over vacant Point Breeze lots

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 15, 2014

PHILADELPHIA City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said he recently stopped the sale of two vacant city-owned lots in Point Breeze to a developer because the parcels were a good fit for a new affordable-housing strategy.

But the developer poised to buy the parcels at 1316 and 1318 S. Cleveland St. happened to be Ori Feibush, the budding real estate titan who has announced plans to challenge the first-term councilman in next year's Democratic primary.

Johnson said the potential buyer of the lots did not influence his action.

"We hadn't had a conversation," Johnson said. "He wasn't even on my personal radar."

Feibush said Johnson's comments "simply make no sense."

He said he had multiple discussions with Johnson's office about Cleveland Street - he has bid $51,900 for both lots - and presented his plans at a community meeting attended by the councilman's staff.

"They knew how much work we had done regarding these lots," he said. "They are either lying or have suffered amnesia if they suggest otherwise."

Whatever the case, the rubble-strewn rowhouse lots are emblematic of the neighborhood's decline and potential for rebirth - and of the tension between old and new playing out as Point Breeze develops.

That's a battle likely to be carried to the ballot next year, with Feibush as the unabashed advocate of development to lift the neighborhood, and Johnson cautioning against unbridled building casting off longtime residents and pricing out middle- and low-income buyers.

"I believe in smart development. We want inclusive neighborhoods," Johnson said. "That's affordable housing, workforce housing, market-rate housing. What's wrong with having mixed development in the community?"

Feibush and his company, OCF Realty, are major players in the market-rate housing business. His company finished 50 units last year and hopes to complete 30 to 40 this year, he said.

Feibush said he bought one privately owned lot and had a half-dozen more under contract on the narrow 1300 block of South Cleveland.

He is clearly frustrated with Johnson and the marathon course of buying city-owned lots - a procedure that includes getting the councilman's consent.

"It's systematic of a very, very murky process that's almost impossible to navigate on a good day," Feibush said. "You throw in councilmanic prerogative, and it's downright impossible."

Johnson's office said Feibush gets more attention than any other developer in the Second Council District, which includes South and Southwest Philadelphia. Feibush has received zoning variances for three projects, and he has been able to buy or has sales pending on seven city-owned properties.

Johnson also removed five Feibush-owned properties from a 2012 bill to seize blighted lots by eminent domain.

"Just because we don't support one particular project-" Johnson said in an interview before trailing off in exasperation. "I mean, come on."

He said he was not picking on Feibush - it just so happened that the Cleveland Street parcels were the first to cross his desk after Council President Darrell L. Clarke announced his affordable-housing strategy last month.

But Feibush said that those lots were small and ill-suited for affordable housing and that any city-driven building would take years.

He said his plans would have quickly "restored dignity" to a blighted area.

Furthermore, he was troubled that his bid, which had been accepted, was spiked at Johnson's behest.

"At the end of the day, if you tell someone you're going to sell them something, you have to follow up," Feibush said.

John Kromer, a former city housing director, said that after years without any building in neighborhoods such as Point Breeze, the real estate market had taken off without much planning.

Kromer, though critical of aspects of Clarke's affordable-housing strategy, said the plan could work if it kicks off a serious dialogue. "How do we achieve that balance?" he asked. "Because we're not Boston or San Francisco, and we're not Detroit. We're somewhere in the middle."

Johnson has hardly been antidevelopment - his office helped sell 64 vacant city-owned properties in 2012 and 2013, the majority of them in Point Breeze.

Feibush says that pace is too slow. According to Johnson's staff, Point Breeze has 290 city-owned vacant lots and 990 that are privately owned.

Johnson also has assembled parcels for three pending affordable-housing projects in Point Breeze, including:

Six Habitat for Humanity houses, priced at less than $130,000; 10 around Latona Street priced for less than $170,000; and a mixed development on Bouvier Street with seven units priced at $150,000.

In one of Feibush's latest projects, by comparison, vacant land on Chadwick Street is being replaced with three-bed, three-bath units to be priced at $350,000.

As Feibush toured the block last week, neighbor Roberta Felder opened her door to chat about the construction. A 29-year resident of the block, she said she was happy to see building going on there.

"I'm going to have neighbors," she said with a smile. "It's been empty for so long."


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730215-854-2730  @troyjgraham

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