Point Breeze developer sues Councilman Johnson in federal court

Posted: June 28, 2014

Although real estate developer Ori Feibush plans to run for Kenyatta Johnson's seat on Philadelphia City Council, the first battle between the men may play out in federal court.

Feibush filed a lawsuit late Wednesday accusing Johnson of preventing him from buying two vacant city lots and thwarting his bid to build on a larger tract, both as political retribution.

"It's unconscionable to retaliate," Feibush said. "You may not like me - and that's OK - but you have to follow the law."

Johnson previously said he halted the sale of two vacant lots on the 1300 block of South Cleveland Street in Point Breeze because he wanted them set aside as part of an affordable housing strategy championed by Council President Darrell L. Clarke. The fact that Feibush was in line to purchase the lots never crossed his mind, Johnson said.

The other project referenced in Feibush's lawsuit involved 11 city-owned lots in the 1300 block of South Bouvier Street, also in Point Breeze.

Feibush and two other companies bid on the project, which was to include affordable housing. Feibush said his bid was the strongest.

The suit charges that Johnson "coached the winning developer" and an unnamed staffer "urged another developer not to apply" because the winner had been chosen "from the start."

"We are 100 percent certain that occurred, both through written correspondence and conversations," Feibush said. "We believe every allegation we're putting forth here to be true."

The suit, filed by Matthew B. Weisberg of Morton in U.S. District Court, seeks a judgment in excess of $75,000 plus damages.

Johnson said Thursday night that he had not seen the lawsuit, but that his office has "an open-door policy on development" and has worked frequently with Feibush.

"I've been more than supportive of projects regarding Ori Feibush," he said. "These accusations are totally false."

On the Bouvier project, Johnson noted that the bids were handled by the Redevelopment Authority, which "made the final decision" on picking the developer.

Feibush's real estate empire is primarily based in Point Breeze, where Johnson grew up.

The neighborhood, long plagued by crime and vacancy, has been blooming in recent years with new construction and new residents eager to live near Center City. The changes have caused some clashes with longtime residents, most African American.

Johnson has been promoting affordable housing as a way to keep gentrification from steamrolling Point Breeze. Feibush accuses the councilman of holding back development that is restoring "dignity" to blighted areas.

Their meeting on the Democratic primary ballot next year could be a proxy fight over the future of Point Breeze - although the neighborhood is just a small part of Johnson's Second District.

The lawsuit essentially accuses Johnson of abusing his councilmanic privilege, the near-total control Council members wield over projects in their areas. But Feibush said he wasn't attacking that authority.

"I'm sure there are other Council members who use it for good," he said. "This is just an example of it being used for bad."

Feibush said he had signed a lease and was preparing to open his first campaign office at 20th and South Streets.


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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