Neighborhood fights back against converted Houghton St. lot

Few things say “I don’t like your design concept” like demolishing a fence with a sledgehammer, but in the back alleys of typically quiet Roxborough streets, it was the summit of simmering tensions between a builder and a neighborhood.

For decades, a vacant lot on the 4200 block of Houghton St. served as an accepted feature of the landscape, allowing easy access and clear sight lines for vehicles using an adjoining drive, which dozens of residents use to access the rear of their homes on nearby Rector Street.

This steady state of affairs changed earlier this year, when builder Vaughan Buckley acquired the lot and began building a two-story house. For Buckley, the proximity of the home’s living room and bedroom to the drive necessitated the installation of a six-foot privacy fence, which limited visibility while exiting the narrow roadway.

When coupled with increased traffic on another adjacent drive behind several houses on Houghton Street, neighbors began to boil with resentment, with several confronting Buckley about the impacts of the construction.

And then, late one night in March, a neighbor of the site allegedly took a sledgehammer from his garage, and in several swings, brought the $3,200 fence down.

Sparking safety concerns among residents 

In a city where new development often collides with tradition – with expedience being the ironic commonality between the two – the situation on Houghton Street is challenging to anyone unfamiliar with its unique layout.

The 4200 block of Houghton St. is a one-way street that runs parallel to Ridge Avenue, situated between Roxborough Avenue and Rector Street. Halfway down the block on the west side of the street is a driveway that sits between Buckley’s new house and the final house in an existing row of homes.

The driveway serves a narrow drive and an accessway. The former, immediately behind Buckley’s site, leads to the driveways behind homes on Rector Street, reached via a sharp left from the alleyway. The latter, located behind Houghton Street, is a well-worn dirt accessway that leads from the end of the driveway to Roxborough Avenue.

Due to this layout, the residents of each street have specific concerns triggered by the new home.

For those living on Houghton Street, the diminished sightlines from the home and road blockages by construction crews are resulting in additional traffic on their bumpy accessway – much of it from denizens of Rector Street. As is the case with private roadways, it is neither maintained by the city nor eligible for traffic control signage.

For Rector Street residents, many are concerned about safe access to their driveways both for themselves and for delivery trucks and emergency vehicles. Some also expressed frustration with an absence of notification about the construction, which was done by-right by the builder.

And, of course, there was the fence, the installation of which was described by one resident as sounding like gunfire – at 6:30 in the morning.

“Issues dominoed,” was the succinct summary made by Chris McGuigan of Houghton Street.

Beyond property boundaries, the only thing seemingly shared in common by the builder and the surrounding community was regret over the broken lines of communication.

Proposing an amended fence plan 

Buckley said that when he spoke privately to some residents, their anger was palpable. In response, he installed a fifty-percent transparent fence and convex security mirror.

“There are only so many things I can do to be reasonable,” said Buckley, expressing frustration about what he saw as a lack of practicable solutions from Rector Street neighbors for addressing a situation he inherited from the city’s building code.

Buckley voiced a willingness to continue discussions with residents, even offering to explore expansion of the drive, whose 15-foot width does not meet current Philadelphia code.

Buckley indicated that he could install a new fence with reduced height that is 50-percent see-through and at a 45-degree angle. While he said beforehand that he would only go forward with neighborhood interest – especially given that its predecessor was reduced to rubble – Buckley told NewsWorks this week that he would probably just go ahead with the enhancements, given the lack of input from Rector Street residents.

As for the demolished fence, Buckley said that after police arrived, law enforcement contacted the suspect and released him. That neighbor has since agreed to cover the costs of replacing the fence, according to Buckley.

Opening communication lines 

While Buckley awaits remuneration, life on Houghton Street has become a little more harmonious, as the entire episode had the unintended consequence of fostering communication and uniting neighbors toward a common cause. 

“Communication, talking, and trying to work together as neighbors have really helped,” said McGuigan.

Noting that the larger issue is with the lingering effects of earlier, outdated – or possibly non-existent – city code, McGuigan offered that being in touch with city officials is as equal in importance as dealing with smaller neighborhood flare-ups.

To this end, she consulted Josh Cohen, special assistant to Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who in turn contacted the Streets Department about the situation. With the Houghton Street accessway being a private road, residents are ineligible for help from the city, but can erect a locked gate to limit through-traffic.

“It’s just a reality that construction is happening and that we’ve got these old streets and old laws on the books,” she said.

With the larger policy issue identified, community members are still split in their feelings about the house.

Ted Prusinski of Rector Street reiterated earlier cited sentiments about community notification and emergency vehicle access.

“These builders, they know what they’re doing,” he said ominously.

Charles Harron of Houghton Street implored his neighbors to accept change, saying “Hey, there’s a house there, what are you going to do?”

“It’s a beautiful house,” he continued. “It’s going to fit right in with the neighborhood.”

While Rector Street residents appear to remain unsatisfied, a teasing remark made by McGuigan seemed to underscore the separate peace that some residents had reached with Buckley.

“He said he’s going to put a deck and pool on the back of all of our houses,” she said. 

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