The inside of 1942-58 N Front St
The inside of 1942-58 N Front St

Several years ago Kensington and Fishtown were caught in a quagmire over a proposal by the Women’s Community Revitalization Project to demolish two bank buildings at the intersection of Front and Norris, near the Berks stop on the Market-Frankford Line, in order to build ultra-low income rental houses.

Neighbors on Hope Street, which is adjacent to this property, hastily formed a Registered Community Organization in response to the project in order to voice their objections over the lackluster design, which called for parking ramps on their no-parking street, the lack of ground floor commercial space as the property is zoned commercial, and that there was no intention to save what the neighborhood considers to be historic properties that are worth preservation, and indeed they are.

Well, the banks are going to see new life and will be saved from further decay.   A. Jordan Rushie, Esq., who represented neighbors who challenged the proposed project in Common Pleas court and prevailed, had this to say:

Today is a great day for East Kensington and Fishtown. I am pleased to announce that the historic banks on Front & Norris Streets are being rescued by Onion Flats, an internationally known design and development firm with offices nearby.

As some of you my recall, it was a long and hard fought legal battle. Initially the ZBA allowed a developer to tear down the historic banks for ultra low income housing. A group of neighbors and civic associations filed an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. Isaac Slepner represented Jesse Gardner, who submitted an amicus brief on the historic value of the buildings. I represented the civic associations and neighbors, and briefed the legal arguments with respect to the zoning issues.

Two years ago we stood in Judge Ellen Ceisler’s courtroom and explained why these two historic textile banks should be saved and repurposed. Chris Somers provided expert testimony on their value, and Jesse Gardner informed the judge that he was ready to purchase the banks that day should they come on the market. The people prevailed, and the gavel came down in our favor.

This final development proves once again that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Onion Flats, a development group on West Norris St. that has had extensive experience with historic redevelopment projects in the area will restore and redevelop the bank buildings.

Since the court decision, WCRP was able to find vacant land for their project nearby in the Somerset area of Kensington.

Late yesterday evening this lovely illegal rental house burnt to a crisp:

1657 E BERKS
1657 E BERKS – Yes, there are two pitbulls in the second floor window.  I know not why.

It’s one of the few slumlord/speculator houses remaining in Fishtown.   Most slumlords have already cashed in and moved on but this particular pernicious owner has been playing the slumlord game well.

Just a couple months ago East Coast Financial, which owns the house, rescued it from Sheriff’s Sale at the very last second:

In cases like these where you have a savvy slumlord who knows how to play the system, what to do?

There’s always Act 90 and the Doors and Windows law, where L&I could come in and fine the owner $300 per broken opening in the house, wait for the fines to crawl up to a high dollar amount and then demand immediate restitution or L&I will move to seize the property; but that’s pretty remote.  You will need full support of your district City Council member’s office prodding this along so that L&I actually does it.

This house happens to be inside Council President Darrell Clarke’s councilmanic district.  So the likelihood of his office lifting a finger or doing much of anything seems unlikely.  I guess Fishtown will be enjoying its new burnt out home-sweet-home for a while.

Have no fear though.  Now that it’s obviously blighted, maybe NKCDC (New Kensington Community Development Corporation) or FNA (Fishtown Neighbors Association) can petition Common Pleas Court to take the house under Act 135, hand it to a homebuilder to do something with it, then sell it.

Within hours after PDQ broke the story of Universal Community Homes being smacked with an Act 135 petition to appoint a conservator over the building to save it from imminent collapse, Universal quickly filed an entry of appearance in the case.

OH HAI! R U SAVE BUILDINGS?

Earlier today, men could be seen coming and going out of the Royal’s front doors.  Are they contractors doing estimates for saving those walls?  Will they get that forest up on the roof removed?

And speaking of Universal noticing that it’s being sued, the Royal Theater itself just literally got noticed.  By Wally Zimolong, the attorney representing Juan Levy who is petitioning the court to appoint a conservator over the building.

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The Royal Theater

Editor’s Note: Don’t know what Act 135 is? Take a quick read here.

We’ve all seen the horrible state and beacon of blight that the Royal Theater is in. Neighborhood theater screens have long since been bested by suburban megaplexes boasting a zillion screens. There are a limited number of avenues to restore screenhouses and small performance houses into modern uses. In the Royal’s case, desegregation and the Civil Rights Act combined to obviate the need for a black-only theater. Management couldn’t adapt to the shift in values, and by 1970, it closed for good.

Some of Philly’s dead theaters have found brand new life, but with mixed results. The Uptown in North Philly is now making progress towards becoming a performance art venue. The Devon in Mayfair was injected with Perzel cash and found some temporary life, although the development non-profit burned through that cash and it’s now asleep again. With Perzel gone, so went the cash.

Fishtown’s long-dormant Jumbo Theatre was turned into a dollar store. Two Center City neighborhood theaters, the Boyd and the Royal, are still stuck marking time as blight objects with thriving urbanity and bustling activity surrounding them. The Boyd still sits across from Drinker’s Pub on Chestnut Street with faded posters of its “upcoming revival!” on the front.

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