Long before the ongoing court fight over a planned demolition of the Bunting House, owners Giovannone Construction say they originally planned to keep and restore the 19th-century Ridge Avenue house.
In testimony at an injunction hearing Monday, Frank Giovannone said he and brother Anthony first bought the property at 5901 Ridge Ave. in a pre-foreclosure short sale in September, 2011 thinking they would refurbish it and continue renting to commercial tenants. Instead, over the next year, they bought up several adjacent properties, all of which they now plan to clear to make way for a future commercial project.
Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox is now considering whether to issue an injunction that would stop the demolition for which the Giovannones received a permit in September. Fox said she would issue her decision this week.
While the Giovannones have met several times with representatives of the civic groups who are seeking the injunction, they have not spoken publicly about the Bunting House controversy. In court Monday, Frank Giovannone said he and his brother are now running the construction business their father founded on his last day of Roxborough High School in 1954.
An opportunity to ‘clean up a whole corner’
The brothers began buying properties in their teens, Frank Giovannone said, and he later studied civil engineering at Drexel University. He said they investigated the Ridge Avenue property before they bought it and found it was not listed on the city’s historic register.
A structural report they commissioned in August showed the Bunting House to be “functionally obsolete” for commercial tenants, in need of a new electrical system, stormwater management plan, handicap-accessibility work and other problems, Giovannone said.
By then, the Giovannones had acquired the run-down buildings at 5905, 5907 and 5909 Ridge, and instead began looking at the larger picture.
“We saw it as an opportunity to clean up a whole corner,” Frank Giovannone said.
Attorney Hal Schirmer, representing several Roxborough-area civic associations trying to save the Bunting House, suggested much of the building’s decline came only after the Giovannones emptied it of tenants.
The lack of historic status is not the central basis of the argument Schirmer is making. The building has never been historically certified and Roxborough lacks a historic district, though there are early efforts to create a Neighborhood Conservation District.
Questioning the validity of the demolition permit
Rather, Schirmer is arguing that because the demolition permit lists the property’s future use as “vacant lot,” and because that is not among the listed allowable uses in that commercial zone, it should not be a valid permit. Essentially, he is arguing that non-use is a use itself.
City attorney Andrew Ross has argued that nothing in the city’s code bans vacant properties, nor are owners compelled to build on properties they own. The city requires owners to register vacant buildings, Ross said, but that is about maintenance and legal liability, not zoning.
For the owners’ part, Giovannone said it was never their intention to leave the properties empty, and they have been talking to major national chains about moving to the Ridge Avenue site. The location is now fenced off, though vandals and thieves have broken through it in three different spots and continue to damage the house, he said.
He estimated they have spent about $75,000 maintaining the properties, above the $1 million they paid for them.
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