A lofty plan on Ridge Ave. and a messy land dispute

Vacant buildings are part of the blight the Housing Authority hopes to erase by building in the Ridge Avenue neighborhood.
Vacant buildings are part of the blight the Housing Authority hopes to erase by building in the Ridge Avenue neighborhood. (VIVIANA PERNOT/ Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 01, 2014

Big change is envisioned for a vast green triangle of land on Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia, between Master and West Jefferson Streets.

Where grass, trees, and weeds now cover most of the block, a modern office building could rise over the languishing avenue.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority wants to take over the land to build a new headquarters, bringing 1,200 workers to a neighborhood where one in six people is unemployed.

But before anything grand happens, the city must resolve a messy and complicated land dispute that involves the only business left on the block - Murphy Brothers, Sons & Daughters Inc.

The matter has entangled a staffer for Council President Darrell L. Clarke, a former NFL football star, and an 81-year-old mechanic who alleges that his property has been sold out from under him.

A judge will have to resolve that matter at a hearing July 24.

The dispute centers on an old gas station at the corner of Ridge and Master. Atlantic Richfield Co. bought the property in 1979 for $135,618 and leased it to Jimmie Murphy.

Murphy, the son of a cotton sharecropper from South Carolina who migrated to North Philadelphia as a 19-year-old, pumped gas and fixed cars.

In 1984, he bought the ARCO station for more than half of what the corporation had paid.

Until the 1960s, the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia was a stable, racially mixed, middle-class neighborhood. But race riots in the summer of 1964 led to a flight of businesses along the once-vibrant Ridge Avenue corridor.

Murphy struggled. "I wasn't making the money to pay taxes," Murphy said.

The city placed a lien on the property in 1990. By 2013, Murphy owed more than $290,000, counting interest and penalties.

In May 2013, the city started action to put the property up for a sheriff's sale. And Murphy scrambled to save his business.

"Land is valuable," he said. "I know. I come from cotton fields."

To dig out from his current tax hole, a younger brother offered to help, he said.

A neighbor reached out on his behalf to the office of Clarke, the Council president, whose Fifth District includes his business.

According to Murphy, an aide to Clarke named Theodore Patestos dropped by his auto-repair shop on Dec. 13 with a consultant, Johnny Patterson, in tow.

Murphy didn't know much about Patterson's business, the Commission on Urban Leadership.

But he said the 26-year-old promised to help him to navigate the sheriff's sale process. Patterson also would work to postpone the sale until Feb. 16, 2014, and reach out to the city about reducing his tax liability.

To handle the matter, Patterson told Murphy he needed $2,000.

The next morning, Clarke's aide drove Patterson to the auto-repair shop. Murphy gave the consultant a cashier's check.

And on Wednesday, Dec. 18, Murphy and his assistant, Tia Holmes, had a surprise visitor.

A car pulled up with three strangers. "I came to tell you I just bought this property," one of the men said.

Stunned, Holmes immediately called Patterson, who claimed the sheriff's sale was the next day. She corrected him.

"I thought they would take care of it, but they didn't," Murphy said.

Murphy said Patterson has not refunded his money or explained what happened. The mechanic has filed a petition in court to reverse the sheriff's sale.

Bryan Lentz, a lawyer for Bochetto & Lentz, said Murphy did not act on his own to stop the sheriff's sale "because he relied on statements from people he believed were representatives of the city who told him that if he paid $2,000, the sale would be stopped."

Patterson declined to discuss his dealings with Murphy. His attorney, Leon King, confirmed that Patterson had a business relationship with Murphy. "I guess it didn't work out," King said.

Neither a spokeswoman for Clarke's office nor City Solicitor Shelley Smith would comment on the situation because of pending litigation.

Last Thursday, the city recorded a deed for the new owner of 2001-11 Ridge Ave., Harrison Inc.

That's the business of Marvin Harrison, a former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver and Philadelphia native, who has been investing in properties in the Sharswood and Brewerytown neighborhoods.

He did not bid directly on Murphy's property, but reached out to the group that won the sheriff's auction - Finite Developers - to buy the site. Stephen Weiss, an investor in Finite, said that before the sale was completed, he assigned his interest in the property to Harrison.

David Denenberg, a lawyer with Abramson & Denenberg, said Harrison was aware of the dispute between Murphy and the city.

"This property was sold because the owner didn't pay taxes for 30 years," Denenberg said. "The citizens of Philadelphia should be pretty upset that the city waited 30 years to collect almost $300,000 in back taxes."

If PHA follows through with its plan to build a new headquarters, the authority would use its power of "eminent domain" to condemn the block.

Should that happen, the owner of the old auto-repair shop would have to be paid fair market value for the property.

Murphy wants it to be him.

"I know what this land is worth," he said. "It would solve a lot of my money problems."


jlin@phillynews.com

215-854-5659 @j_linq

www.inquirer.com/doubledown

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