By Alan Jaffe
The owners of the historic Girard Estate Warehouses have been ordered to take immediate steps to fence in, seal up and stabilize the collapsing portions of the Old City buildings, or pay a fine of $750,000 if they violate any parts of the consent agreement.
Common Pleas Court Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan handed down the order Thursday against 20-30 North Front Street LLC, a partnership registered in Delaware. The developer, Brooklyn-based BRP Development Corp, is a member of that partnership, BRP co-founder Geoff Flournoy told PlanPhilly last week.
The judge’s order came in response to a civil suit filed Oct. 5 by the City of Philadelphia against the owners of the buildings at Front and Church Streets. The suit said the properties are “among the most important historic structures in the United States” and “among the last remaining examples of commercial architecture from the Early Republic era.”
The suit cited a variety of building code violations and said “the defendants’ actions or inactions” left substantial brickwork unsupported and “directly contributed to a collapse of the rear walls at 22 and 24 North Front Street” last May.
The suit also said the defendants would “allow the further deterioration of these historic structures in order to accomplish a constructive demolition in flagrant disregard of the will of the citizens and the laws” of the city and state.
In issuing her order, Greenspan gave the owners a series of deadlines for repairing the structures, which BRP had planned to transform into the Old City Mercantile Condominiums. Last week Flournoy said the buildings will be “either condos or apartments, depending on the marketplace.”
Flournoy said Friday that the developer is “satisfied with the order,” and BRP will meet the schedule spelled out by Greenspan. “We worked to establish the deadlines with the city,” he said.
By Oct. 25, the judge said, the owners must erect a fence around the properties and seal all rear entrances to prevent unauthorized entry and protect the interior from further weather damage.
By Nov. 8, they must remove all fallen bricks on the floors of 22 and 24 N. Front St. and any other bricks around the properties, and preserve them.
By Nov. 29, they must construct framing to stabilize all the windows and doors at all the properties, and cover all the openings with plywood. They must also reconstruct and stabilize the collapsing floors at 22 and 24 N. Front, and rebuild the rear walls in accordance with an engineer’s report. Star-bolts must be installed to stabilize the walls as well.
Inspectors from the Department of Licenses and Inspections and an engineer retained by the Historical Commission will then determine the need for any additional repairs. “The defendant shall not further alter or destroy any historic fabric without approval” of the Historical Commission, the order also said.
In addition to the $750,000 conditional fine, a $10,000 fine was imposed on the owners as a municipal lien.
The suit filed by the city last week had sought a conditional fine of $1 million and a fine of $300 per day since last May 31 for code violations.
The property had belonged to Michelle Sweeney, which the suit identified only as a Pennsylvania resident, in September 2005, when the Historical Commission approved an application to remove a collapsed single-story rear addition at 22 N. Front. That site had been the subject of previous safety violations against Sweeney, the court records said.
Sweeney sold the buildings to 20-30 North Front Street LLC in October 2005 for $10, “though she had paid $2.9 million only two years prior,” the suit said, and Sweeney “has an ongoing interest” in the owners’ partnership.
In January 2004, L&I issued permits to the owners to remove the collapsed rear additions and fill the openings at the rear of the properties. The permits were voided after six months because no work was begun. In April 2006, permits were again issued, and voided for the same reason, the court papers said. The rear additions “were finally removed” by June 18, 2006.
A permit to renovate the buildings as condominiums was issued in September 2006, but voided in March because “the defendants abandoned the permit,” the suit said.
In April 2007, permits allowing interior demolition of construction debris, trash removal and plaster removal were issued. The permits prohibited removal of windows or doors, or any other work, the suit said. But the owners violated the permits and removed steel or iron lintels, or window jambs, that had supported the openings, and “as a result, as many as 50 percent of the lintels do not currently provide adequate structural support to the brickwork above the window openings,” the suit said.
The suit also said the owners violated the interior demolition permits by removing lintels supporting the structure and directly contributed to the collapse of the rear walls of two buildings. They also “illegally removed” lintels in windows of other buildings at the site, “thus compromising the structural integrity of the additional walls and presenting an extreme safety hazard to the public as well as grave risk to the historic fabric,” the suit said.
“The actions of the defendants follow a pattern and practice of behavior that exhibits a willingness to actively avoid their affirmative obligation to protect these invaluable historic structures,” according to the suit submitted by the City Solicitor.
The Girard Estate, or possibly shipping magnate Stephen Girard himself, built the properties in the late 1920s to early 1830s to store imported goods arriving at the Delaware River docks. The buildings were listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1977, and the Historical Commission classified them as “significant” resources in 2003. They are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are included in the federal government’s Historic American Buildings Survey.
Members of the Old City Civic Association had raised alarm bells about the condition of the buildings earlier this month. After the judge’s ruling this week, concerns continued at OCCA.
“We’re thrilled by the judge’s decision and the aggressiveness of the city’s intervention, but still wary of the developer’s schedule of completing the necessary stabilization prior to the onset of winter,” said Rich Thom, an architect who chairs the civic association’s developments committee.
Inquirer reporter Stephan Salisbury’s report.
And don’t miss Inquirer Architectural Critic Inga Saffron’s take.