Philadelphia and developer forging a deal on high-profile vacant lot

UPDATED 2:20 p.m.

 A saga concludes: The fate of a vacant lot in Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood, which made national headlines, could be decided soon. It’s a parable of the real estate developer, the vacant lot next to his property and the city that told him to take it down.

Anthony Celli is sitting on his front steps around the corner from where local property owner Ori Feibush had 40 tons of trash removed and added tables and planters.

“We used to call it Vietnam,” Celli said of the lot. “It was so bad. There was like trash, there was metal, everything, just scrap, refrigerators. We did count five refrigerators at one time.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Roots of discord

Feibush hadn’t bought the land from the city and, Celli explained, some people got upset. Gentrification is a constant subtext in the neighborhood, dotted with new construction projects.

“Everyone without a yard took their dog and just let it run for a little bit, and stuff like that,” said Celli of the lot. “[The renovation] kind of took everyone by shock, punched everyone in the jaw, but I don’t even know why people got so mad. He made it look nice.”

The city also got concerned about the appropriation of public property and officials said Feibush had trespassed and told him to halt construction.

Feibush took the criticism to mean that he’d been told to return the lot to its original state.

Downplaying the controversy, Paul D. Chrystie, director of communications at the Office of Housing and Community Development said that the city only told him to stop working on the property.

Philadelphia’s vacant lot problem is overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean the city is ready to let others step in unsupervised.

The city has 40,000 empty lots, according to the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Bob Grossman. For liability and resource reasons, officials keep a tight rein on what’s placed on them, which could mean turning away private resources.

A possible resolution

The conflict became the talk of the neighborhood. Yet few had heard that Philadelphia has just agreed to lease Feibush the property until it can be sold. Feibush will take on the liability until the sale and plans to place a bid himself to keep the corner park.

Passers-by, asked for an ideal ending for the lot, were largely in agreement.

“I would like to see this stay, because it looks nice. It makes the community look better,” said Titus Kellam.

Denethia Durgin added, “I just think it makes the neighborhood more attractive.” 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal