On the record with Ori Feibush: Conflicts of interest, pay to play, rezoning and more

Last Friday, PlanPhilly sat down with Ori Feibush, the young developer behind OCF Realty who is running to unseat Kenyatta Johnson as 2nd District Councilman. We wanted to ask him about the potential for conflicts of interest if a real estate developer were to win an election to represent the area where he has done the bulk of his building. We talked about that and more.

PlanPhilly’s Jared Brey took significant liberties with the editing of the transcript, omitting some statements and rearranging the order of others. Brey also took pains to preserve the meaning and context of Feibush’s words. If you prefer to read the full record, you can do so here.

Feibush refers early on to up-zoning the Point Breeze Avenue commercial corridor from CMX-2 to CMX-3. The CMX-3 category allows taller buildings and a wider range of commercial uses than CMX-2. He also refers to a warehouse he owns at 20th and Wharton streets. Read some background on that property here. We also refer to the proposed development of a hotel at 17th and Chancellor streets that would involve the closing of Little Pete’s diner. 

PlanPhilly has requested a similar interview wth Councilman Johnson.

PlanPhilly: You’re a real estate developer and you’re running for City Council to represent the area where you’ve done the bulk of your development. As a representative of that area, could that open up some potential for conflicts of interest with zoning and land use and things like that?

Ori Feibush: Give me an example.

PP: So for example, if there’s a property that you own, OCF owns and wants to develop, and it needs a zoning change, you as the Councilman could introduce that and with your colleagues’ support get that changed. That’s just one example. You could approve property transfers of city-owned land to your company. How would you avoid getting into areas where there’s a conflict of interest?

OF: I’ll take one of those at a time. Zoning is a little bit different than land disposition. I’d like to answer them separately if I could.

When it comes to zoning, I’m a big believer that the Councilman’s role is to guide a broader conversation on proper planning and vision for a community, and obviously zoning plays a large part in planning and zoning. But it doesn’t make sense to me, either through support or opposition to the Zoning Board of Adjustment or through ordinance that the Council member should be playing judge and jury for any parcel. So, for example, my frustration with the story you just mentioned, Little Pete’s, is not about Little Pete’s, but there’s an opportunity to introduce the Central District remapping process. There’s an opportunity on South Street as it relates to the Royal Theater to introduce the new South Street District, to introduce the Graduate Hospital, to introduce the South District in Point Breeze.

Those processes should happen with significant community input, but with an understanding of the economic realities that go on there. So I’m very honest with my vision, my plan for each of these corridors. I’ll use the example of Point Breeze Avenue. I do believe that Point Breeze Avenue should be up-zoned from CMX-2 to a higher density.

Does that benefit me as somebody who lives and works in that community? Yeah. Does it benefit every single resident who wants to shop or work on that corridor? Absolutely as well.

PP: But, I mean, you get—if for example if you own a property on Point Breeze Avenue, you would get a special benefit from that that wouldn’t be just the sort of general benefit that the community gets from having a higher-density, more active commercial corridor.

OF: If I owned a specific property, then I would benefit in the same fashion that any other property owner would benefit from. I can tell you that perception is reality, and I didn’t believe there to be a conflict, but rather than tell everyone, “Trust me, there’s no conflict,” I just made it much easier for everyone and I divested myself from any real estate holdings on Point Breeze. I do not own a single parcel on Point Breeze Avenue. Not one. Didn’t move it to any weird entity, I just physically sold everything.

The reality is that the current process creates inherent conflicts of interest for Council members. It is no secret that nearly every developer who wants to go before the zoning board or wants an ordinance gives a contribution to the Council member. And that creates a lot of concern. That creates some significant inherent conflict that I don’t believe is appropriate. The fact that every single parcel has to go to the zoning board in itself doesn’t make sense, but that occurs because there isn’t any vision or planning put into the up-zoning or down-zoning of any area.

Not to suggest that the city planners aren’t obviously discussing remapping. Clearly that’s been discussed for several years and now it’s actually happening in some areas. But there’s no economic reality going into that conversation.

So if the desire of the community, and the desire of my office as a Council member is to create a vibrant and active commercial corridor that provides local amenities for near neighbors to shop at, and also local job opportunities for near neighbors to have an opportunity, how do we create that vibrant active commercial corridor?

It’s easy to say, ‘Well, it’s zoned commercial,’ and the Council member, if he sees the right project, will support it. But that, again, creates obvious, inherent issues. So you have to up-zone it. There has not been in the last five or six years a single by-right development in CMX-2. There just hasn’t been. Is that because the planning process is just smarter than every developer or is it that it just doesn’t financially work? (Note: PlanPhilly can’t independently verify that no by-right developments have occurred in CMX-2 zones in the last five years. It’s certainly true that many have gone to the zoning board.)

If you’re serious about up-zoning the corridor, if you’re serious about creating an environment that actually lifts everyone’s tide, that creates equal opportunity for everyone in that community, you have to up-zone the corridor. The last number of years have proven that there is no process which allows you to build a building over there as a matter of right.

So is my way more transparent? Or is the way of the Council member selecting which properties get remapped more appropriate? Which creates more consistency for the market? Which creates a better environment for business owners to feel comfortable that they’re opening up today on a risky corridor, but that down the road additional businesses will open up? If you ask any existing business owner down there, they eagerly want to see more businesses open up.

Everyone speaks about the good old days, where you went to Point Breeze Avenue for your movie theater, your grocery store, your pharmacy, your ice cream, your video games, your you-name-it, whatever it may be, that was where you shop—your furniture. You don’t have any of that anymore. And I am offering a vision, but not rainbows and unicorns, wouldn’t it be nice?

Everyone can offer a vision—but a plan of how to get there. I’m very transparent that I believe the only way to get there is by up-zoning it to CMX-3. That’s what I believe to be the case, and to require commercial on the ground floor.

Is there a better way? An easier way? I’d love to hear it. But it’s easy for the current Council member to say he supports commercial development on the corridor, but in the same breath he creates an environment where it’s physically impossible to open up a commercial business.

It’s illegal to do any number of what you and I would agree are perfectly acceptable uses on that corridor, and I have to ask, why? If the desire is to make it easier for businesses to open up there, then wouldn’t you move mountain and water and everything else to create an environment where business owners could open? So, do I think you should up-zone there? Sure. And I’m not going to hide form that. But do I think that’s a conflict? No, I think that eliminates the conflict.

Again, look at everyone that’s applied for zoning, and they’ve [given] a contribution.

PP: You mentioned the South Street West business corridor as well, and you said you had divested from properties on Point Breeze Ave. You do still have investment properties on this corridor.

OF: No.

PP: I was walking up here [to the OCF office at 21st and South] and I saw the OCF sign on—

OF: Oh, we’re brokers, sure. But the mailing address of that property is West Virginia. I pride myself on being somebody who has been able to encourage honest, hardworking investors from outside of Philadelphia to take a second look at Philadelphia.

I own businesses on South Street; there’s no secret about that. But I don’t own any real estate. It’s very easy to prove that what I’m saying is accurate or not by just looking at public record. I assure you that we own none. I would not make a statement like that to a reporter that could be proven wrong.

To suggest that I somehow have a conflict, I take offense, because I run my business, I run my life in a way that has nothing but the absolute highest level of integrity. But I get that I can’t reach everyone. I was asked by [reporter] Ryan Briggs, I was asked by you: is there a conflict? I said, “You know what? This race is more important to me than my real estate.” And I literally sold everything. And verify it; you’ll be able to check that pretty easily.

I own three properties on Dorrance Street. They’re single-family homes.

Under my holding company we own [an abandoned warehouse at] 20th and Wharton. I can’t sell that right now because the Councilman fought with every fiber of his being to keep that as an abandoned warehouse. It’s a very difficult building to make financial sense for anyone else, and it’s difficult for me to sell a building if, frankly, I’m afraid to sell it, because under the current zoning code, if I sell it to somebody who wants to open a gas station, they could tomorrow. And that goes counter to everything I’ve ever wanted over there.

I will continue to own the warehouse because I’m not willing to risk somebody else having a key property over there when the zoning is messed up. And I’ll be very honest with you. I absolutely, if I was the Council member, would rezone all of those buildings to residential. Does that mean that the project that I proposed would be permitted as of right? Absolutely not. But it would also guarantee that those buildings would be residential.

So, is that self dealing? No. It’s the right thing to do. I bought that building to protect the community.

PP: You’ve criticized Councilman Johnson repeatedly for being an obstacle to development, and particularly for being an obstacle to developments that you’ve been involved in. I’m wondering whether you honestly think that he is using his office to get in your way because of political reasons.

OF: I could only hope that he’s using it for political reasons; my gut is he just doesn’t get it. He honestly believes that Philadelphia should be a tale of two cities, where development should happen in some parts of the city but not in others.

And I’ll tell you, if you speak to the residents of Eastwick, if you speak to the residents in Southwest Philadelphia, if you speak to the residents in Point Breeze, they want development. They want opportunities. They want access to the same things that Center City has. It makes no sense that it’s acceptable in one neighborhood and not another. Either he’s the Councilman for an entire district, or he’s not. And what he’s doing right now is saying that it’s OK for Center City and not for everywhere else.

To say that if you support one building because somebody gave a significant contribution, you’re pro-development, to me that’s the cheapest thing I could ever hear. Being pro-development is submitting a vision for your city that says, ‘This is what I’d like to see here. Let’s see if I can get buy-in from the community on my vision. Does this make sense? Can I get feedback?’ Instead we’re left fighting neighbor after neighbor over one project or another project, and there’s no vision. There’s no plan.

It’s easy for Kenyatta to think that he’s now pro-development because he’s supported two ordinances. To me, that screams to the issue. You’ve got his three largest contributors just got two ordinances.

And again, I’ll say it emphatically, on the record, and I’ll chisel it into stone, I’m not introducing any ordinances for spot zoning. That’s not the right process. That doesn’t mean that I’m anti-development; that means I’m pro-vision, pro-planning. I’m pro coming up with something that makes sense that also recognizes the economic realities on the ground. He’s looking at a block here and a block there.

Businesses should be next to other businesses. Residences should be next to other residences. It’s a matter of planning, and the man has shown that time and time again he’s not willing to put forward a vision and a plan. Criticize me for what you want—I’m putting forward a plan. At least you can say that you oppose my plan. You can’t even say that you oppose the Councilman’s plan, because he has not introduced one.

PP: The other thing that I just want to make sure is on the record is, you said before that you thought he was deliberately sort of messing with you. Do you think that that is happening, that he held up certain property transfers because you were the developer?

OF: Look, there’s no question. I have had conversations on and off the record with different city agencies, and there’s no secret. The man doesn’t like me, and that’s fine. But to hurt a community over petty politics, to me, that’s unconscionable.

I very much believe that, but it’s also not why I’m running. Because I’m one of a thousand people who have had the same experience. It’s not just me. There are so many individuals that for one reason or no reason at all have upset him, and as a result are no longer able to work within the city, or are no longer able to build within a community.

But again, you need to take favoritism out of the zoning process. What I’m arguing for is an open, transparent, community planning process. Again, taking economic realities into consideration. So really moving forward a community. Put forward a vision. You have never heard the man say, ‘This is my vision for Washington Avenue. This is my vision for South Street. This is my vision for Point Breeze, for Grays Ferry, or West Passyunk, for Eastwick, for Southwest Philadelphia. These are my visions.’ At least be open, be public. ‘This is my vision for the stadium area.’

PP: With respect to Councilman Johnson being pro-development or anti-development, he’s now saying that he supports new development, but he often defers to the concerns of whatever the local community group is. And I’m wondering, if you were the Council member, how you would handle those concerns. And how you would sort of smooth over relationships with community groups you’ve had problems with in the past.

OF: The Council member can always find a proxy who opposes something when he opposes it. When you’re not willing to be a leader you can always find somebody to fall back on and say, ‘This is why.’ I have never in my life seen that man at any meeting in Point Breeze that involves zoning, that involves planning. Never. And I go to all of them. And in the same breath, there has never been a meeting that I haven’t attended. Say what you want about me—I show up. I’m there. I have a conversation. I present my vision. I present my plan, and I have a conversation with neighbors.

But again, all neighbors want to be a part of the dialogue but they also want to see their neighborhood get better. So when you’ve got a Council member who’s saying development is going to raise your taxes, you inherently create fear. But that’s not somebody being a leader. I want to present a plan to a community that makes that community better, that makes a lot of the communities in the 2nd District better. And I want to work with neighbors to shape that plan. This is not my way or the highway.

Again, I am running with one of a thousand expectations that I would like to see the Point Breeze commercial corridor come back to life. And I believe the only way to make that happen is to up-zone that corridor. I’m being very honest with that. I’m being very upfront with that. Not because of self-dealing but because everyone who I’ve ever spoken to who lives within a mile of that street says how great would it be if it was this. That’s not an Ori vision; that is a vision for that community.

I struggle to see a world where up-zoning that would somehow be self-dealing and be counter-productive. That is what every neighbor there deserves.

PP: So, imagining that you were the Council member, somebody comes along and they have a project that goes to the zoning board—

OF: Speak specifics here, because it’s always easy to speak in generalities.

PP: Sure. Let’s take Point Breeze Ave. for an example, and let’s say you’ve even already up-zoned it to CMX-3. But some developer says, I want to—

OF: It’s not my place. They can beg, they can scream, they can plead—I am not writing a letter.

PP: OK. You’re not going to write a letter to the zoning board at all.

OF: In today’s environment, Council members have to be involved on every single property. If you multiply that and realize you’ve got 50 or 60 thousand properties in the 2nd District, that’s insane. My goal is to focus on broad planning. Active up-zoning. Active down-zoning if it’s appropriate in a residential community. But actively work to create an environment where, if we want commercial, it can be built by right. And that includes the economic realities, not just the physical constraints of building commercial. If we want residential it can be built by right.

But I have no intention of getting myself into whether or not a building or a single-family home can add another three feet of open space or not. That’s not the point of a Council member. The Council member is supposed to present a vision and a plan. So no, I’m not going to be involved in that type of stuff. But I’m also not going to leave the neighborhood in such a place where every single property requires zoning. That’s what’s happening right now. That’s not productive for the zoning board, that’s not productive for the civic groups, that’s not productive for average residents.

But no, I do not believe on a micro level a Council member should be involved in zoning.

PP: So even if stuff comes up that’s like—inevitably something’s going to have to go to the zoning board.

OF: “Have to” is very different.

PP: Right. Sorry. “Have to” was the wrong choice of words. But somebody’s going to want to do something different than what the zoning allows no matter what the zoning is.

OF: They’re going to build consensus with the community, and they’re going to go to the zoning board. And the zoning board is not going to read into my not participating in that because I will be very clear: under no circumstances am I going to involve myself.

So I, yes, am going to be involved in zoning but on a global level, on a planning basis. If it’s an industrial building in the middle of a residential corridor, yeah, that should be residential. If it’s a residential property in the middle of a commercial corridor, on Point Breeze Avenue specifically, I want to make that happen.

PP: So the somewhat rocky history with certain specific groups in Point Breeze that you’ve had doesn’t worry you?

OF: No one would ever suggest that I’m wishy-washy. I show up. I give my opinion. I listen to feedback. This is not my way or the highway; this is development by consensus.

Perfect example: I’ve built in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood and you’ve never heard of a single project I’ve built. You couldn’t name one project I’ve built in this neighborhood. And they’ve all gone through zoning.

Why is that? Because I play nicer here? No. It’s because over here you’ve got organized civic groups that are actually representing the feedback of the people, and in Point Breeze you have a lot of those as well. I honest-to-god believe that South Philadelphia HOMES is an organization that tries to provide the will of the people. Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze is not.

PP: So, last week, when the Little Pete’s news came out, you released a statement criticizing Councilman Johnson for accepting campaign contributions from the developers. But you’ve also said that you plan to raise $2 million for your campaign, and I’m wondering whether you’re on pace to meet that goal, and who your—

OF: I’m not raising $2 million. Somebody asked me a number—I could have said 10.  

PP: OK. But the larger point of the question is, who are your biggest funders so far?

OF: There’s not a single Political Action Committee that’s given me a dollar. I am my largest contributor right now. I don’t know. I could certainly look for you.

PP: The records that I saw are just from last December and there’s a couple people that are involved in development stuff, but I don’t know what’s happened since.

OF: Sure. I definitely have received contributions from people who build in the city. There’s no question. I would never suggest for a second that I haven’t. But that’s because they believe the system is broken, not because they believe I’m going to provide them some special services.

PP: Well, how are you going to avoid that perception?

OF: Again, I am not involved in zoning on a micro level here. You know what you’re getting with me. I am looking to create an environment where, if the community says “We want commercial,” I want to move heaven and earth to make commercial possible. There’s no secrets there.

What more oppressive thing can you do, what greater burden can you impose on a community than saying, “You’re not allowed to have businesses in your community.” That’s what exists over there right now. And it’s easier for him to say “I support business” because he showed up to one ribbon-cutting ceremony. But we have thousands and thousands of young men and women, and even senior citizens, who need to have a job. Who don’t have access to go to the suburbs for work. Who don’t have access perhaps even to go to Center City for work. That want an opportunity to work locally and can’t. So if they’re serious about having commercial, as I am, then they’ll support up-zoning that corridor. But does that suggest that somehow it affects my—it’s because of my contributions? It’s—

PP: I’m just asking because you raised pay to play—

OF: But look, it’s two different things. You’ve got dozens and dozens of real estate players making contributions to the Councilman for one of two reasons. Either they want to buy vacant land from the city, or they want zoning. That’s it. That’s it. You look at every single vacant land disposition that has occurred out of the 2nd District, except for the ones that I bought, and every single one of those individuals either made a contribution, or their attorney made a contribution, or their eight-year-old daughter made a contribution, somebody made a contribution. You look at every zoning ordinance and you see the same thing. I am not in that business. I am in the business of moving the community forward.

I sit with real estate developers day in and day out, and they drive me bonkers. They tell me, “When you get to my age, you’ll realize you made your life so much more difficult. You could’ve written a check to Kenyatta and your life would have been so much easier.” And they’re right.

I’m not running to make my life easier, or to make any one individual’s life easier. I’m running because our city is broken. There is no vision. There is no commitment to: this is where we’re going to move forward.

PP: Is there anything else you want to talk about before I let you go?

OF: You had asked before, so I just want to answer it so you don’t quote me saying I have no answer or being evasive, but with the vacant land disposition, you had asked—

PP: Yeah. Go ahead and say what you were going to say about the vacant land dispositions.

OF: So, you’ve got a situation in the 2nd District right now where you’ve got entire blocks that are just wholly vacant because it’s city-owned land. And the answer or the reason you get from the Councilman’s office is they have it scheduled for name-the-hundred-uses. But the truth is it’s just pandering to ten different groups. I mean, they’ll promise the same parcel to 15 different people. You’ll have one lot sell and you’ll see an uproar where five different people thought they were going to buy that property, because they were all promised it. You’ll see a church gifted and ten other churches get upset.

The way vacant land disposition works right now is that it’s used as a political chip to either collect political contributions or to solicit votes. That’s it. And it’s nonsense. It’s absolutely inappropriate. There’s a longer conversation in the community—let’s figure out where our open space should be.  It might be where a developer owns one, and the city owns the next, and a developer owns the next—let’s trade lots. Let’s figure out something, let’s be creative, let’s be intuitive. Let’s plan. Again, the common theme.

But for lots that are going to be for market-rate development, put them up for auction to the highest bidder.

PP: Would you support doing that for the Land Bank? Because if you theoretically—

OF: I don’t understand why you need to have ten different agencies to do it.

PP: That’s kind of what I’m talking about. If you approve the transfer of all the properties in the 2nd District from the various holding agencies they’re under now to the Land Bank, then theoretically they’d all be under one.

OF: I wouldn’t, only because I don’t clearly understand the Land Bank, and I don’t know why you need to add any other layers here. Empower the city agencies that own the various parcels to auction off the parcels. Get the highest amount of money possible. Have an open, public auction—again, for those parcels that should be designated for market-rate, which is generally the bulk of them—and sell them. And then figure out a way to get that money directly to the schools. But not to the school board—to the schools.

And again, it’s not my job to select who that buyer is like it occurs today. The Councilman has his hands in every single land sale right now. And if you look up the donors to the Councilman, maybe it’s a complete coincidence, maybe, that every single person who bought vacant lots, either he or his brother or sister or mother or father or his kids made a contribution—that’s not an accident. It’s not. There are more committee people that have received vacant land than anyone else. Are committee people better developers than anyone else? Maybe. Maybe. But you’re laughing because that’s the reality of Philadelphia politics today.

And you’ve got a guy coming in who understands business, who understands what it is to employ people, who understands what it is to build things, and somehow, the Councilman’s trying to spin a story that I’m not an infinitely better fit for an area that so desperately needs jobs, that so desperately needs to be cleaned up, that so desperately needs a second chance. And if you ask any resident, they want the same things.

You can look at it as a conflict. I look at it as somebody with a significant toolbox of resources to help lead a vision forward of moving our city to a much better place.

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