The struggle of one Philadelphia neighborhood to battle an unsightly “abandoned” lot
For close to a decade, a small vacant lot in Mt. Airy has been a thorn in the collective side of a number of nearby neighbors. The former site of a dry cleaning plant, the overgrown West Mt. Pleasant Avenue plot is now, they say, a black eye on an otherwise ordinary, but well-kept residential block of twin and single-family homes.
“This is just a blighted influence on the neighborhood,” said Carolyn Placke, who lives just feet from the 500-block property that sits just east of McCallum Street.
Over the years, resident-lead efforts to address the 7,000 square foot-parcel have garnered some success. Neighborhood pressure has, on at least two occasions, lead to city action on the lot itself as well as against its owners.
But as spring begins to bloom, the future of the privately owned lot remains in limbo. A four-year legal battle between the owners is fading, but not finished. And the city has told neighbors that they’ve all but exhausted their options for the time being.
Neighbors considering additional action
Faced with another season of weeds, vermin and trash, neighbors have recently begun mounting another push to make the lot less of an eye-sore.
In mid-march, a small group gathered at a West Mt. Airy Neighbor’s Quality of Life meeting to discuss a potential course of action. On Monday, an expanded group continued that discussion during a 500 Glen Echo Concerned Neighbors meeting.
What kind of action should be taken, however, is a matter of debate.
Some neighbors would like to look to the city once more for help. Others, believing the lot to be a low-priority for the cash-strapped city with thousands of more menacing lots, want to take things into their own hands with an organized clean-up. And still a third group is concerned about the legal repercussions of executing such an effort on private land.
Why it’s vacant
In the summer of 2005, the lot was sold in a sheriff sale to Alexsander Podolnyy and Natallya Edelson, according to records kept by the Board of Revisions of Taxes. The sale came, in part, as a result of local pressure from a collection of neighbors from Glen Echo Road and some surrounding streets.
Soon afterwards, neighbors say four foundation holes were created, reportedly for a future single-family home, but were left by the owners following a dispute over the property. The lot had been all but abandoned.
“They left the land as is, with huge holes and the ground excavated,” said JoAnne Chapman, a long-time resident of Glen Echo Road. “When it rained, there would be puddles of water that would collect in the holes and the retaining wall between West Mt. Pleasant and Glenn Echo was starting to deteriorate.”
Those holes, and the property’s overall degradation, lead to more formal gripes to the city from neighbors and eventually a civil lawsuit on behalf of the city against the owners in 2009, according to neighbors.
The city won that suit, they say, which required that the owners fill the stagnant foundation holes and erect a fence around the property, among other things.
Since that decision, little has happened on the lot. Podolnyy and Edelson complied with the city’s requests and the city, with no other move to make, stepped aside.
“At that point we were told by [the Department of Licenses and Inspections] that there was nothing more that could possibly be done as far as that area was concerned,” said Chapman.
Only in the event that the property became a nuisance, said Chapman, would the city potentially return to the table.
Little has also happened as a result of ongoing litigation on the property, which stems from, among other things, a breach of contract between Podolnyy and Edelson.
According to Eric Rayz, Podolnyy’s lawyer, Edelson was hired by his client to build a house on the lot and handle buying the land.
To that end, Podolnyy put up $140,000, which included the cost of purchasing the lot and an advance on constructing a single-family home there, said Rayz.
What happened next is a bit unclear. According to Podolnyy – the project’s sole financier, according to Rayz – Edelson essentially walked away from the project after telling him she and her associates were unable to complete the project.
Rochelle Fieldcamp, Edelson’s lawyer, would not comment for this story and referred NewsWorks to Rayz for details about the case.
Rayz would not comment on what happened to the $140,000, but did tell NewsWorks that a July 2010 Court of Common Pleas settlement in favor of Podolnyy entitles his client to the first $140,000 made on the lot. Anything over that amount would be divided between Podolnyy and Edelson, he said.
Podolnyy (who put up the money) was also named the sole equitable owner in that lawsuit, but Edelson (who was hired to build the house) remains on the title, he said, meaning her signature is required on a potential sale of the property.
The value of the land
It’s unclear what the property would fetch in today’s market, though Rayz said it likely wouldn’t be the full $140,000.
“The property is worth somewhere between $0 and $140,000. I don’t think it’s worth $140,000, but I don’t think it’s worth $0 either,” said Rayz.
According to a BRT property search, the lot’s assessed worth is just over $20,000 and its market value $63,000. The property also has more than $20,000 in liens and judgments, mostly from unpaid taxes, according to the city’s Department of Revenue. It’s not clear if that money would play a role in the lot’s purchase.
Rayz said he’s unsure how the expected gap between the property’s sale price and the $140,000 owed to his client will be closed.
But he was sure that litigation, related to the lot should be complete in the near future. “I think that this process is in the end stages of a stalemate. Finger crossed, we’ll hopefully be able to get this thing resolved sooner than later,” said Rayz.
Podolnyy said the property is still for sale and that he’d like to sell it.
“We would like to fix it. We don’t want any neighbors to get upset. I perfectly understand their concern,” he said.
Neighbors debate cleaning up the weed garden
In the meantime, a small group of neighbors have decided to move forward with their own clean-up effort where they would either clean the lot themselves or hire a handyman to do it on a regular basis.
During Monday night’s meeting, those neighbors agreed to start coordinating a clean-up effort with other neighbors, the 22nd Ward’s leader and committeepersons, as well as Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, a part of the city’s Streets Department, said Placke in an email.
In the immediate future, neighbors that have already committed themselves to such an effort will meet at the lot and assess what specific work needs to be done there.
“If you really want something done, you’re going to have to do it yourself,” said Curt Pontz during the March WMAN meeting, during which a debate about a clean-up broke out.
But a number of neighbors will not be joining that effort. Chapman of Glen Echo Road, whose neighborhood group formed, in part, around addressing the lot, said neighbors shouldn’t walk down that path.
“It’s the responsibility of the property owners,” said Chapman. “And we need to hold our city accountable, no matter how long it takes.”
Other neighbors are concerned that a clean-up could lead to lawsuits related to trespassing or feel uneasy about liability in the case of someone injuring themselves on the lot.
Rayz, Podolnyy’s attorney, was unable to provide an answer when asked whether his client would permit a clean-up on the lot.
Pro or anti-cleanup, the group does agree that a letter to the city from WMAN doesn’t hurt their cause. To that end, the civic association has drafted a letter to Philadelphia City Managing Director Richard Negrin that will ultimately be signed by the WMAN Board after neighbor input.
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.