In Fairmount, Neighbors Balk At City Enforcement Of Ancient Property Lines

 

View looking north from the south end of Opal Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

View looking north from the south end of Opal Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

Laid out in 1869, the 800 block of tiny North Opal Street in Fairmount was given generous eight foot sidewalks. Since then a house was built over the sidewalk at the southern end of the block and the western sidewalk disappeared beneath walled-off backyards and concrete driveways.

Looking up from the south end now, the encroachments from the houses on North Uber and North 20th, on either side of Opal, appear integral to the architecture of the street.

This sense of permanence is perhaps why residents there were surprised to receive notices issued in August by the Streets Department that their backyards were not in compliance with the street plan. Building owners were told they must vacate the sidewalk. Now potentially facing fines, residents are seeking either exemption from the rule or recourse.

No one lives on this block of Opal.

Of the 22 vacant parcels with an Opal Street address, most are owned by city agencies and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. None of the properties, whether privately or publicly owned, are yet in compliance with the right-of-way if they had not been so before.

And some of them comprise Ogden Park, created and maintained by local residents. Under the ruling, portions of the park would have to be removed.

Backyard fences encroaching on the western side of Opal Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

Backyard fences encroaching on the western side of Opal Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

A Streets Department spokesperson, Kiesha McCarty-Skelton, stated in an e-mail that the enforcement is a response to complaints received by the department. She added that “all property owners received the same warning.” But neighbors were given no clear deadline for removing encroachments. Moreover, there have been no signs of city workers sent out to clear the sidewalks in front of city owned land.

This has given residents the impression that the city is arbitrarily enforcing the century old code. They are hesitant to move forward with dismantling their backyards until they see some effort on the part of the city-owned properties.

The Streets Department spokesperson declined to clarify the source of the complaint that triggered the enforcement of the 1869 street plan, but Opal Street property owner Doug Young noted how the warnings coincided with the sale and development of three lots on the street’s eastern side. Other property owners do not see any connection between the warnings and development.

Looking north from the south end of Opal St. The house in the foreground at right was built on top of the sidewalk.

Looking north from the south end of Opal St. The house in the foreground at right was built on top of the sidewalk.

Young, whose backyard faces Opal, fought for an exemption through an ordinance of council, which was the course of action recommended to him by the Streets Department. This amounted to a letter sent to his city councilperson, Darrell Clarke, requesting that the right-of-way not be enforced for the entire block.

Later, says Young, another Streets Department official visiting the the block told him that there is a chance he could exempt his own property but not remove the public right-of-way.

Another property owner, Drew Kondylas, also noted that city officials have given contradictory responses. “I’ve talked to several people in the Streets Department and each has given me a different answer,” he says.

One impression residents share is that they’re unlikely to receive permission for their encroachments. They also feel they have been left without recourse for having purchased properties they thought were legally compliant.

McCarty-Skelton counters that “if a person builds illegally there is no time frame whereby the construction is declared legal by virtue of its existence.” So regardless of how long the city has ignored the street plan, property owners are now expected to abide the right-of-way.

For many, this will mean demolishing retaining walls and relocating fences. But just as hard to swallow is the loss of Ogden Park, which extends on both sides of Opal, between 20th and Uber. Kondylas, who formed the non-profit Friends of Ogden Park, is trying to get the city to consolidate the publicly owned parcels that comprise the park and permanently transfer them to the Department of Parks and Recreation. But if the right-of-way is enforced the park could lose several feet of green space on both sides of Opal.

Ogden Park | Photo: Peter Woodall

Ogden Park | Photo: Peter Woodall

Prior to its recent improvements, says Kondylas, “Ogden Park was home to drugs and prostitution and not much else. Today there is a beautiful garden cultivated by a landscape architect, a picnic table, and there are barbeques almost every weekend in the summer.”

More than three months after the August notices were delivered, it remains to be seen whether this public amenity will survive the city’s sudden desire to reclaim the public right-of-way.

About the author

Alex Vuocolo is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs. He has written for Next American City and is currently picking up the occasional credit at Delaware County Community College.



3 Comments


  1. This block is really in Francisville according to most Fairmounters. Development is so fast and furious in Fville that it’s hard to know what’s happening from one day to another.

  2. This is indeed Francisville: the borders are Girard Avenue to the North, Corinthian Avenue to the East, Fairmount Avenue to the South, and Broad Street to the West. Also, if anyone is interest in Friends of Ogden Park, much more information is available at http://www.FriendsOfOgdenPark.org. Thanks for sharing, Alex.

Trackbacks

  1. Mode of Being » The Hidden City Interview: A Full Transcript
Recent Posts
Researchers: World Trade Center Ship Built In Pre-Revolutionary Philly

Researchers: World Trade Center Ship Built In Pre-Revolutionary Philly

July 31, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Manhattan sloop said to be constructed from similar timber of Independence Hall, Comcast looking for temporary solution to office space shortage, City to get better neighborhood data, minimizing the impact of methdone clinics, and the Queen Lane Apartments well on their way to demolition > more

Under World

Under World

July 31, 2014  |  Last Light

What's life like under the El in Kensington? There are a million answers, and here are a few of them courtesy of three street photographers > more

In Parkside, Habitat For Humanity Takes On New Challenge: Preservation

In Parkside, Habitat For Humanity Takes On New Challenge: Preservation

July 30, 2014  |  News

Neighbors and volunteers confront challenges as they attempt to restore their Philadelphia historic register houses. Some preservationists argue that this kind of project, in a low income neighborhood, requires a new approach. Michael Buozis files this report from West Philadelphia > more

Over $200 Million In Improvements Coming To The Gallery

Over $200 Million In Improvements Coming To The Gallery

July 30, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Two companies announce their joint venture to revitalize the Market Street mall, two youth-athletic leagues also set to collaborate on new space, preventing inappropriate mixed-use in Bustleton, and crime down in UCity > more

Fairmount Park Guard Houses: A Survivor's Guide

Fairmount Park Guard Houses: A Survivor’s Guide

July 29, 2014  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

The Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust is busy restoring the few of these uniquely Philadelphia buildings that remain. Harry K tells us why they're important and where to find them > more

Design Advocate Says New Zoning Classification Needs Revision

Design Advocate Says New Zoning Classification Needs Revision

July 29, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Ruben on the dangers of IRMX, US House votes to rename 30th Street Station, a look at the Linc’s $125 makeover, and the street melodies of yore > more