Point Breeze developer claims arson is part of backlash against gentrification

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 The developer of the building in South Philadelphia's Point Breeze neighborhood says the arson caused millions of dollars in damage.(Bobby Allyn / WHYY)

The developer of the building in South Philadelphia's Point Breeze neighborhood says the arson caused millions of dollars in damage.(Bobby Allyn / WHYY)

Philadelphia police are still looking for those who set fire to an upscale townhome project early Monday morning, burning half of it to the ground.

But the project developer said Wednesday he has a good idea who is responsible.

Ori Feibush, the developer of the building in South Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood, said the arson caused millions of dollars in damage.

In another incident reported Monday morning in South Kensington, police said masked vandals spray-painted buildings, damaged fancy cars and caused property damage to newly built multifamily sites.

Geoffrey Suchocki, 45, of Doylestown and Patricia Monahan, 28, of Rhawnhurst, have been arrested in connection with the South Kensington episode.

On Tuesday evening, a police spokesman said “there is no connection at this time” between the Point Breeze fire and the South Kensington property damage carried out by what authorities describe as anti-capitalist activists.

Feibush, however, said he has a good reason to believe otherwise.

“I believe that the parties responsible are upwardly mobile white folks who grew up outside of the city. Suburban individuals. Individuals that came from good homes who believe that their way to promote their political persuasion is to stomp their feet and break things,” he said.

Asked for the evidence he has to establish a link between the two incidents, Feibush demurred.

“It is not my story to tell,” he said. “It is my job to get my office in order, to rebuild homes that are no longer there, and to provide a roof over the heads of buyers who were expecting to move into these homes Monday and no longer have a place to live.”

Longstanding conflict

For years, Point Breeze residents have been getting whiter and wealthier, and neighborhood critics say working-class black residents have been pushed out. To activists, this project was glaring example of that trend.

“The houses are going for $600,000. That’s an insult to the people who can’t afford $200,000,” said longtime affordable housing advocate Claudia Smith-Sherrod, who leads the group South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S.

IMG 1892Longtime affordable housing advocate Claudia Smith-Sherrod leads the group South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S. (Bobby Allyn / WHYY)

Smith-Sherrod and other community members spoke out against the project at public hearings, but they could not stop it. Just weeks ago, fliers circulating in Point Breeze attacked the one-time City Council candidate Feibush. “Gentrification is modern-day colonialism,” they read.

What did Smith-Sherrod make of the arson?

“I would never, ever support anybody burning anyone’s property down,” Smith-Sherrod said.

She said her hunch is that people from outside the community were the perpetrators — and that they were trying to do something for frustrated Point Breeze residents.

“But that is really sick,” she said. “They are not doing it on behalf of us. Because if they were doing it on behalf of us, no brick would have been laid.”

When Point Breeze resident Dayan Hayes, 35, heard about the fire, she was glad no one was injured in the blaze. But the incident also reminded her of a long-simmering resentment she’s harbored against Feibush.

“He’s got to go. He’s got to go,” she said. “Go back to where you came from. I mean, go back to where them people can afford the houses and the taxes, because we’re not going to be able to afford these taxes soon,” she said of Feibush. “So he’s actually trying to force us out. That’s not cool.”

Demand driving development

The three-story townhomes under construction at 20th and Wharton streets stand in stark contrast to the older rowhouses surrounding them.

Feibush has admitted that the townhomes are pricey. Yet, he said, the units are in response to buyer demand — and that he should not be scapegoated for problems that run deeper than one developer.

“To suggest that my homes have increased other peoples’ taxes and pushed them out is tantamount to getting frustrated when a school improves in your community, and, suddenly, your taxes go up because the neighborhood has improved,” Feibush said.

“And it is incredibly advantageous for a politician to point to a developer and say, ‘He is the reason.’ But that defies all economic logic,” Feibush continued. “And it is, quite frankly, dangerous to continue to sell a story that is factually untrue.”

Meanwhile, Feibush said, security has been increased around the construction site as the rubble is removed and rebuilding begins.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is offering a $10,000 reward for anyone who can provide tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonists. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has offered an additional $2,500 for the same information.

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