Roxborough property owner faces conservatorship battle over once-neglected pizza shop

 5101 Rochelle Ave. in Oct. 2013. (Neema Roshania/WHYY)

5101 Rochelle Ave. in Oct. 2013. (Neema Roshania/WHYY)

The dangerous conditions that resulted in Licenses & Inspections violations have been repaired. Delinquent taxes have been paid. And the owner of the property at 5101 Rochelle Avenue in Roxborough said he is finishing rehabilitation of the building and will soon be seeking residential and commercial tenants.

But the Wissahickon Interested Citizen’s Association has begun proceedings to have a court-appointed conservator take possession of the property, complete its rehab, and possibly sell the building. A second hearing on the case will be held Tuesday in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

WICA is using 2008 state legislation known as Act 135, or the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, to acquire the property located at Rochelle Avenue and Sumac Street. The law is aimed at transforming neglected properties into productive reuse.

According to Eric Sacks, the owner of the building, it was never abandoned and is no longer blighted, and losing the property would be a financial blow to his family.

“I believe what is happening is the unintended consequences of a good law. People are hijacking the concept of the law, and they are not operating out of concern for the heart of the neighborhood,” Sacks said.

Longtime problems

In Oct. 2013, L&I notices were posted on the Rochelle Avenue building, which had once been Mia’s Pizza restaurant, informing the owner that he faced legal action and fines if immediate repairs weren’t made. The notices cited a partially collapsed ceiling and repairs needed on the front and basement entrances. The metal doors leading to the cellar had been broken and dislodged, leaving a hole along the pedestrian walkway.

WICA vice president Charles Roller said the building had been an eyesore for years, adding to the rundown appearance of the Ridge Avenue gateway to Roxborough.

Neither Roller nor other representatives of WICA responded last week to requests for comment for this article.

Sacks acknowledged that the building had fallen into disrepair over the past decade, when it had been owned by his two brothers, Barry and Steven. Eric Sacks bought the property from them in 2012. But because of a family illness, he was not able to begin repairing the building until six months later, he said.

City records also showed that Sacks owed $4,082 in delinquent real estate taxes in 2013. Sacks said he entered into an agreement to pay off the back taxes and completed payment in Aug. 2014.

A notice of housing code violations at the building was issued as recently as April 11, 2014. Sacks said he received notification from L&I last October that the property met all code requirements.

Still, a stop-work order was issued a month ago, Sacks said, and an inspector informed him that he needed electrical and general construction permits to complete rehabilitation of the building.

WICA suit

The current lawsuit filed by WICA and Innova Redevelopment LLC cites Innova as the prospective conservator of the Rochelle Avenue property. Innova is described in court documents as a developer that focuses on affordable housing “while contributing to the sustainable redevelopment of transitional neighborhoods.”

Jeffrey Allegretti, who serves on WICA’s zoning committee, is president of Innova.

The suit cites numerous conditions for seeking conservatorship of the property, including the L&I violations for unsafe conditions and failing structural systems. The property is described as a “public nuisance.” The suit also states, “The dilapidated appearance and condition of the property affects the economic well-being of residents and businesses in close proximity, including decrease in property value and loss of business, and the owner has failed to take reasonable and necessary measures to remedy the appearance and condition.”

Vision for the building

Sacks said the building is now structurally sound and he has painted the exterior, replaced the glass, installed a security and fire alarm system, and is currently renovating the interior.

The building is zoned for mixed use, and he plans on three apartments and a commercial space on the ground floor.

“We are planning on making very nice apartments,” Sack said. “This is a beautiful building with a great view” looking out from the Roxborough hill.

“Very shortly we plan to put out feelers for someone to move into the commercial space, and we will work around their needs. I picture a restaurant, and I’d like to see the first-floor windows turned into large glass doors,” Sacks said.

He expects the court to ask who would do a better job on the renovation.

“Jeff Allegretti has a lot of money and a construction company. He can do it faster. He can probably do a great job,” Sacks said. “But I can do it. It takes me longer, but I do a great job.”

The property “means a lot to us,” Sacks said. “I have probably put in $180,000 so far, and took out a line of credit to pay off the building. If they take it away, it will be a major financial setback for us.”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at  alanjaffe@mac.com.

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