A glimmer of hope for Roxborough’s Bunting House, as owners say they’ll hold off on demolition

Neighbors and civic groups in the Roxborough area are continuing their efforts to save a 19th-century house at 5901 Ridge Ave., as the owners have tentatively agreed to delay demolition and now indicate they are open to preserving the building.

Early Wednesday morning, the attorney representing several civic groups filed an appeal with the Department of Licenses and Inspections Review Board seeking to have a demolition permit issued Sept. 6 revoked. And, Hal Schirmer said, he filed court papers seeking a temporary restraining order that would prevent the property owners from carrying out the demolition, which can legally proceed as of today.

Later yesterday, in the space of a few hours and as the case began attracting more media attention, a representative of Giovannone Construction Inc. issued two statements, both of which indicated the owners of the Bunting House and three neighboring properties had agreed to wait a month but want neighbors to drop their legal appeals.

In the first statement, which spokesman Frank Keel sent to NewsWorks by email around 2:30 p.m, the owners were willing to delay but “have one important condition attached to their tentative offer of a 30-day extension — that all legal challenges to their lawful rights and permits as developers, including any requests for injunctions, be withdrawn by any and all civic groups, community groups, elected officials and private citizens.”

Later, Keel issued a new statement, softening that stance.

The newer version, received at about 5:30 p.m., said the Giovannones had agreement from their investor partners to hold off the demolition for a minimum of 30 days “while we work with community officials to come up with a solution that can save the building and provide for a first-class, sustainable redevelopment of the entire site,” and requesting — rather than demanding — that the legal challenges be dropped.

Exploring all options 

The statement goes on to say that Giovannone Construction would “thoroughly explore all viable options discussed at the Monday meeting at the Roxborough Development Corporation and the several new options that have surfaced in the last several days” regarding the future of the Bunting House.

At that Monday meeting, the RDC offered to help the owners secure a tenant for 5901 Ridge Ave., and local chiropractor David Schiman has publicly expressed interest in moving his business into the house. Until recently, the house at the corner of Ridge and Roxborough avenues had been home to the Erb Law Firm, which recently decamped to Paoli.

The investor group, operating as 5901 Ridge LLC, also owns the more dilapidated houses at 5905, 5907 and 5909 Ridge; all the properties are now empty and zoned for commercial uses. Only the corner property, once the home of a prominent Roxborough physician, has become a focus of preservation efforts. While not listed on the city’s historic register, neighbors say it has historical significance and is a precious example of Second Empire construction.

Schirmer, representing the Central Roxborough Civic Association, the Ridge Park Civic Association, the Manayunk Neighborhood Council and Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association, said late yesterday he wasn’t formally withdrawing his appeals, but was willing to forgo further action while the parties continued talking. The case would take several weeks to be heard by the L&I Review Board or come before a judge, and Schirmer said he wasn’t running back to City Hall to pursue an emergency injunction.

Letting the situation ‘cool down’ 

“If they don’t try to rush to knock it down, we don’t have to rush to try to save it,” Schirmer said. “As long as they aren’t up there with a dozer trying to knock something down, then we can still keep talking.”

Schirmer asserts that L&I erred in issuing the demolition permit because it calls for leaving the lots empty after the buildings come down, and vacant properties are not allowable uses under the city’s zoning code. Further, a future development proposal could trigger the Civic Design Review process under the new code, requiring involvement — if not approval — from some of the same civic groups now fighting to save the Bunting House.

Keel’s initial statement said the Giovannone family, who have completed other projects in the area and have offices on Umbria Street, has “deep roots in the Roxborough-Manayunk community and cares deeply about the concerns of their neighbors.”

Schirmer said he was willing to take the owners at their word and wait on seeking to legally block the demolition.

“The car is started, but it’s not in gear yet,” he said. “We’re going to let things cool down.”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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