Sunday, May 13, 2018

More Historic Loss in the Midst of Preservation Month

After this month's demolition of the historic Frankford Chocolate Factory, thanks to an endless array of loopholes within the city's preservation-dedicated agencies, another element of mismanagement has allowed the same developer, Ori Feibush of OCF Realty, to demolish the Christian Street Baptist Church. 

In this instance, this Historical Commission voted 5-4 to protect the 19th Century Italianate church with two abstentions. It's those abstentions that allowed the church to remain unprotected despite a vote in favor. As it turned out, the Department of Planning and Development requires the Historical Commission to grant at least six votes in order to protect a building. This all happened nearly six months ago, and since then no re-vote has been cast. 

Chalk one more up to the nation's first World Heritage City in the midst of Preservation Month. It's curious why two of the Historical Commission's members declined to vote. After all, they're the primary body responsible for making these sometimes tough decisions.

Did those two members just not bother showing up?

Feibush, who paid $1.5M for the property, briefly held out in search of a buyer willing to convert the church into apartments. It certainly wouldn't be unheard of. There are a number of converted churches in the city and surrounding areas and they make breathtaking living spaces, some fetching much higher prices than newly constructed town homes. Feibush even offered to let the property go for $1M, but claims no offers were made.

In the wake of the demolition of the Frankford Chocolate Factory and other properties razed by Feibush and OCF Reality, this all sounds a little sketchy. Though it seems Feibush extended an olive branch after his much-criticized demolition of the factory (which reminded many he also demolished the Royal Theater), he only extended that offer for a month. As of Thursday, demolition was back on, with hopes to quickly ready the site for two buildings comprised of eight apartments.

Like the factory and the Royal Theater, this speaks to the erratic fashion under which Feibush conducts business. Unlike developers with firm project plans, i.e. Carl Dranoff and Eric Blumenfeld, Feibush targets threatened sites, moves quickly and confusingly. Before the dust settles, he's often erected one of his superfluously cardboard carbon copies and preservationists are left scratching their heads, wondering what exactly just happened before he's moved on to his next idea. This is characteristic of a developer who once ran for City Council which, would he have won, would have imposed massive conflicts-of-interest were he ever to sign the death warrant of a property he stood to profit from. 

But as it currently exists, Feibush and OCF Realty function within the confines of the law, however unethically they may exploit the spirit of it. Why can't Feibush himself convert the Christian Street Baptist Church into four or six unique apartments? He might not see the same expansive profit of a tear-down replaced with cheap construction, but he'd easily make back his investment. As many noted while he began razing the Frankford Chocolate Factory, residential conversion of these urban properties was the status quo in the 1980s and '90s, most notably in Callowhill's lofts. 

OCF Realty seems to have found a loyal and steady flow of income in Millennials and New Philadelphians who don't really understand Philadelphia's history, or care to. 

While neighbors ferociously opposed Feibush's plans for Christian Street, their opposition was almost exclusively surrounding (you guessed it) parking. It's a just complaint. While the site would get eight cars off the street, it would bring eight cars to an already congested and car-heavy part of town, all a few blocks from a subway and next to several major bus routes. However, given that the church is not technically under any historic protection, arguments regarding parking may have been the pragmatic way to make a case for saving a beautiful old building and neighborhood landmark. 

None of this matters so long as Feibush owns the church. Anyone remotely familiar with development in Philadelphia is aware of Feibush's nefarious track record for sameness crammed with "luxury" amenities. McMansionHell could franchise a subsidiary dedicated to piss-poor post-post-modern urban architecture without ever straying from OCF Realty's website. 

Feibush and other one-trick ponies like Toll Brothers don't have a vested interest in Philadelphia that doesn't solely benefit their bottom lines. Preservation isn't as profitable as new construction, it never will be. This is exactly why we have organizations like the Historical Commission, the Preservation Task Force, and the Register of Historic Places. They are the gates between history and profit-blinded development. 

Hope for preservation can't exist when those charged with protecting history aren't willing to do their jobs, or bother to do something as simple as vote. In Philadelphia, preservation currently only exists in hindsight, and in those of us who can do nothing but look at falling buildings and shake our heads. Currently we're seeing a level of historic loss not seen since the post-war demolition spree responsible for some of the city's largest urban voids: Dock Street, Penn's Landing, Vine Street. By now, we should know better. 

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