The Frankford Chocolate Factory looms over Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia, covering an entire city block, anchoring the roadway in the industrial uses that dominated it for the past century or more.
In 2006, the red-brick factory that could once claim to be the nation’s largest manufacturer of chocolate Easter bunnies closed down. In that same decade the neighborhood to its north—which became known as Graduate Hospital—saw an influx of new residents with money. Then the neighborhood to the south, Point Breeze, began to gentrify as well.
But Washington Avenue remained stubbornly industrial. Now developer Ori Feibush, president of OCF Realty, wants to transform it: starting with the former chocolate factory.
For Danielle Diaz, who lives directly behind the old factory on Kimball Street, it’s about time something happened. She says Feibush is keeping near neighbors in the loop, knocking on doors to tell them about his upcoming project. And Diaz isn’t too upset that the developer plans to demolish over 80 percent of the existing building.
“We did our wedding photos in front of this warehouse, so we’ll always have a piece, but to be honest it’s like ‘let’s just do something,’” said Diaz. “I like that he plans to have houses facing us. This will be a real street. It will be nice to have neighbors.”
Just to the south, Washington Avenue remains primarily a corridor of light industrial enterprises — roofing supply distributors, tile showrooms, and auto mechanics. On the north side of the street, new businesses foreshadow the changes that have transformed the surrounding residential neighborhoods: a Mexican restaurant, a gastropub, a yoga studio and competitive ax-throwing studio where wannabe Daniel Boones can hurl hatchets for $39.99 a two-hour session.
But these businesses, none of which would be out of place amongst the date-night destinations and family-friendly shops of revitalized East Passyunk, or on the lively stretch of South Street that runs through Graduate Hospital, are still the exception.
If all goes according to Feibush’s plan, that will soon change. On the factory’s grounds, he envisions a grocery store, green public spaces, perhaps even affordable housing, and the preservation of the iconic smokestack. The project, he says, will jumpstart a renaissance along this distinctly unromantic four-lane roadway. He owns plenty of other property nearby, and the massive factory is the lynchpin needed to make Washington Ave. the next South Philly hotspot.
“It is certainly the most ambitious project my office has ever undertaken and, also, the most important project the neighborhood will ever see,” said Feibush.
Feibush says he bought the building for $15.5 million and on top of that it will cost another $60 million to knock down much of the existing factory and replace it with an 176-unit apartment building, 22,000 square feet of retail space, and 62 units of housing in duplexes and townhomes.
A project of that magnitude, however, comes with complications. First, there are the preservation concerns. From the outside the former chocolate factory looks stately enough to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it was in January of this year. A few days later, a nomination was submitted to add the building to the local historic register—which would protect it from the wrecking ball.
The man who wrote it, Dennis Carlisle, now works for Feibush and tried to retract the nomination. (He told the Inquirer that Feibush gave him a tour and he could see it was too far gone.) The Historical Commission, however, still insists that the project is still under their purview. This week a sub-committee declared the case eligible for consideration by the whole commission.
But last week the Department of Licenses and Inspections declared the building “imminently dangerous.” The declaration got Feibush the zoning permit he needs to level the factory, but he still needs to apply for a demolition permit.
L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss says the demolition permit, when he seeks it, will exempt the smokestack and its adjoining building at the corner of 22nd Street and Washington Avenue.
“The Historical Commission has to approve the demo permit and is within its authority to do so because of the threat to public safety,” Guss said in an email.
All of this rubs preservationists the wrong way. As Philadelphia’s historic building stock faces demolition pressures in gentrifying neighborhoods, Feibush’s plan to level the vast majority of the chocolate factory is just the latest casualty. And from their perspective, the city bureaucracy seems to have just fallen into line to allow him to quickly knock it down.
“We think an independent structural report is essential,” said Paul Steinke, head of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. “Especially because all throughout last year the property was considered in good enough condition to be added to the National Register and considered for an apartment conversion.”
A suburban consortium of developers purchased the old industrial site in 2015 and this week, sold it to Feibush for almost double what they got it for. Before putting it on the market, they’d retained renowned architect Cecil Baker to draw up plans for the site, with a mission of preserving the most historic parts of the structure.
Feibush categorically denies that most of the building can be preserved. Walking around the interior, he routes a path along the central factory floor, which he says is generally intact on each level. But he discourages walking near leaky walls where the floor is rotten and collapsing. (“The last thing I need is to accidentally kill a reporter,” he commented.) Feibush points to one particular corner of the fourth level where the floor slopes down towards a gaping wound where it gave way entirely.
“There’s always a stupid amount of money you can throw at anything, but the idea that it is a even remotely possible restoration defies any and all logic of the property,” said Feibush, gesturing around the huge empty space draped with mats of hanging insulation.
The Preservation Alliance says that Feibush agreed to allow them to tour the building themselves with their own structural engineer. But the developer claims this is a misunderstanding: he says he just gives everyone tours. The building is cattycorner to OCF Realty’s headquarters, so Feibush can easily pop over and show around, say, the head of the Historical Commission, or Licenses and Inspection. Feibush says he’s willing to show the Preservation Alliance around too, but he’s not going to wait on their assessment before he starts tearing things down, assuming the next permit comes through, of course.
But the preservation concerns aren’t the only issue Feibush faces. For one, some neighbors fear the toxic fallout from demolishing an old industrial building, especially after recent concerns around the construction boom in formerly industrial Fishtown.
@jblumgart Demo has started on Frankfort Chocolate factory. Any idea how and who is helping Ori Feibush ocf clear the asbestos and lead in the building? Are they licensed by Philly’s Air Management Services? We families in the neighborhood are concerned. Thx! pic.twitter.com/Xtt3Uz4UrG
— Xiao (@itsxao) April 19, 2018
For business owners, questions about traffic changes, especially during construction, dominates their concerns. This is a roadway that is already crowded with cars and trucks, some of which park in the median to be served by mini-forklifts that whiz out to transfer cargo to the warehouses.
“I could see it bringing life to the area but I could also see it bringing complications to a street that’s already really busy,” said Michael Dugan, branch manager for the Ivan Supply Company, situated directly across from the chocolate factory. “We load and unload trucks in the middle of the street and that’s not going to change. It can’t change, we have nowhere to bring the trucks in to. It will cause issues, so there will be some good and some bad.”
Others in the neighborhood see other tradeoffs. Lauren Vidas, co-chair of the South of South Neighborhood Association’s zoning committee, says she’s bummed to lose the building but that otherwise, Feibush’s proposal echoes what the civic group has long sought for the site.
“The proposal is in line with all those design principals the neighborhood is looking for,” Vidas said. “But if there’s going to be that much density we’d like to see a real push to include some affordable housing and some rental units to try and make sure this isn’t just $400,000 condos going up.”
Feibush says he is considering baking affordability into the project, although he won’t say more than that and won’t make promises. Right now, the one-for-one underground parking he plans on providing–a hedge against neighborhood opposition– is so expensive that it could crowd out other priorities like cheaper units.
The developer talks about a desire to balance all of the neighborhood’s priorities—good design, preservation, affordability, parking—but in the end, he can’t do everything that every party wants, he says. To him, the chocolate factory, or the site where it currently sits, is just the beginning of a complete transformation of Washington Avenue.
“There are a lot reasons Washington Avenue has been held back for years,” said Feibush. “This [building] is the biggest blight, but our confidence in our abilities to get this off the ground have allowed us to pursue ancillary properties adjoining the site. Because of this in the next year, we’ll be able to unveil plans for many other parcels along Washington Avenue.”
Back on Kimball Street, Diaz says she’s nervous for construction to start. The building that is coming down is literally in front of her house, after all. But she’s also excited for a new beginning. And much as she appreciates the chocolate factory, she’s a little tired of facing the blank expanse of its rear end.
“Yes, its unique in itself,” said Diaz. “[But in front of her house] It’s a red brick wall with mold on it and empty air conditioners stolen of their copper. At least they get the graffiti down there [at the end of the block]. Here we don’t even get that.”