There are days, usually in summer when the trees are in bloom and the light is just right, that it’s possible to almost miss the empty Carmella’s restaurant building on Manayunk’s Venice Island.
But most days — especially at this time of year, when the trees along Main Street are bare of leaves — the structure looms large over Venice Island, publicly decomposing like a road kill carcass. Graffiti, boarded-up windows and overgrown bushes greet motorists, bikers and walkers traveling along the stretch of Main Street between the Green Lane Bridge and Leverington Avenue.
Up close, it’s worse.
The unsecured parking lot, strewn with tree branches and chunks of broken asphalt, affords unfettered access to the property, and it’s clear there are plenty of visitors. Household trash spills out of bags. Broken pieces of plywood fashioned into skateboard ramps lean against a curb. It’s unlikely anyone would be sleeping outside on a brutally cold January day, but there are several mattresses strewn about.
Those conditions are unlikely to change anytime soon, the property’s owner said.
The legal battle
The site at 1 Leverington Ave. is owned by Manayunk real estate mogul Dan Neducsin and once housed trendy eateries — Carmella’s, and before that Arroyo Grill. Decades before that it was where the Piszek family processed Mrs. Paul’s fish as their Manayunk-born business grew.
Carmella’s restaurant closed in 2004, and since then, the site has become an unsightly sentinel at the threshold of Neduscin’s otherwise tony Manayunk holdings. Neducsin has had big ideas for the site for nearly a decade, with a plan to build a four-building condo complex called Venice One.
Instead, 1 Leverington Ave. is at the center of a long-running legal dispute between Neducsin and the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, one still winding its way through the courts and the city Zoning Board.
An eyesore with an aim
Until there’s a final decision, Neducsin said Tuesday, the site will likely stay much as it is now. He called the MNC’s continued legal maneuvers “one delay tactic after another,” and said he’s still eager to build Venice One.
“I’m very frustrated at what happened. I used to keep it up, I used to be out there painting and replacing windows, and they’d get in there again. Now I’m tired,” he said. It may be ugly, but Neducsin suggested the eyesore is serving a purpose.
“I’m hopeful that it actually helps our case, that they may get tired of seeing that [abandoned property] and they would drop the appeal,” Neducsin said.
But MNC president Kevin Smith says that’s not the case.
“Mr. Neducsin should accept full responsibility for the state of the 1 Leverington property and his decision to close what, by his own accounts, was a successful restaurant.” Smith said. “The current abandoned building and overgrown property could be cleared away in a matter of weeks but the travesty he is proposing to build on the site would impact the community for generations.”
“We believe this project would have an enormous negative impact on the community and we remain committed in our opposition,” he concluded.
Smith, along with other members of the MNC, regards Venice One’s nonexistence as a major victory.
In 2007, Neduscin won approval from the city Planning Commission and variances from the zoning board to build 270 condominiums in six-story buildings on the site. The MNC appealed, citing mainly the location’s presence in a floodplain.
A messy series of lawsuits, zoning board decisions, reversals and appeals followed. Most recently, in August, the board issued a new set of findings of fact justifying their decision to grant variances, after previous decisions were vacated and a state court sent it back to the city, finding the board hadn’t properly detailed its reasoning.
In the August document, the ZBA said neighbors who objected to the plan didn’t live close to the site, and noted Neducsin’s testimony that “flooding on the subject property was rare.” Ironically, it also found that the property’s location within the Schuylkill River flood plain contributed to creating the hardship needed to qualify for zoning variances.
“The variances are the minimum necessary to afford relief to [Neducsin],” the zoning board’s findings read. “Applicant cannot build at ground level due to the threat of flooding.” In other findings, the board found the project would enhance access to Venice Island’s recreational uses at the island’s southern end, and that it wouldn’t adversely impact quality of life in the rest of the neighborhood.
The latest findings of fact were formally added to the case record in September, and now both sides await the scheduling of a Common Pleas Court date to decide what comes next. As of yesterday, none was scheduled, according to the office of Judge Idee Fox.
Neducsin said he’s not giving up.
“I want to put something up that I’m proud of,” he said. “I’m different from most developers. Anything I do in Manayunk, I do to enhance my other projects.” Neducsin owns about 300 apartments and nine restaurants in the neighborhood and is the driving force behind the revitalization that began in the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, as construction begins in earnest on the opposite end of Venice Island on a new flood-abatement program and performing arts center, the Carmella’s property waits, empty windows staring like vacant eyes across Main Street.
An earlier version of the story indicated former Mayor Bill Green is a part-owner of the site at 1 Leverington. In fact, he sold his equity stake in the property in 2005, before development efforts began. However, the owner of record is still called Ned-Green Partnership.
Contact Amy Z. Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org