Owners of historic Roxborough house agree to delay demolition by 30 days

12 p.m. update: Attorney Hal Schirmer, representing civics opposed to the 5901 Ridge Ave. demolition, says he has received word from the Giovannones, owners of a 19th century Roxborough house, that they will give a 30-day extension before proceeding with demolition. Earlier Wednesday morning, Schirmer said he filed papers for an emergency injunction to stop the demolition.

Brothers Frank and Anthony Giovannone, who own 5901 Ridge Ave. and three adjoining houses, retained spokesman Frank Keel on Tuesday to handle public response to what is a growing controversy. Some community members say the owners are attempting to bring down what they say is a historically valuable property, with little to no community notice.

At a meeting Monday with civic representatives and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.’s office, the Giovannones said they would consider a month-long stay of the demolition, which according to permits can proceed as of Thursday.

Tuesday evening, after a fact-finding meeting with the owners, Keel issued a statement saying Giovannone Construction Inc. is “currently looking at all options proposed at the meetings,” and that negotiations with the ownership group are ongoing.

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Giovannone Construction has offices on Umbria Street, adjacent to a set of townhouses they also built on Paoli Avenue. Neither Frank nor Anthony Giovannone was available for comment during a visit there on Tuesday.

While the owners may be taking their time making a decision, that may not stop community efforts to save the stately stone building that sits at the corner of Roxborough Avenue that was, until recently, home to the Erb Law Firm and tenants in the upstairs apartments. A Change.org petition created Monday continued gathering signatures — nearly 700 last night — and a lawyer representing neighbors and civic groups said he may begin filing zoning appeals and seeking a court injunction as soon as Wednesday.

“We’re going to assume that we are going through with our appeals,” attorney Hal Schirmer said.

While the demolition permits seem to be appropriately obtained, Schirmer indicated that the new zoning code could provide a legal basis for an appeal or an injunction. The house is not listed on the city’s register of historic places.

In particular, Schirmer mentioned that under the new code, major developments can trigger a Civic Review process, meaning the developers would eventually have to get some measure of community approval for whatever they decide to build. Right now, the demolition permits call for replacing the buildings with only a vacant lot, and the owners have not said what, if any, future development plans they have.

“We are looking at [the new code], there are a couple of opportunities” for appeal, Schirmer said, though he declined to go into specifics about his potential legal strategy. “All bets are off — this is a brand new zoning code.”

The Giovannones also own the properties at 5905, 5907 and 5909 Ridge Ave., though the impending demolition of those structures hasn’t struck a public nerve like the circa-1880s Bunting House, so called for the Roxborough doctor who once lived there.

All of the properties are empty and zoned for commercial uses. A previous owner’s plan, which received zoning approval in 2008, would have preserved the Bunting House but built on the lots around it. In the years since, the Giovannones have assembled the properties, buying them either in sheriff sale or foreclosures.

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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