The distinctive brick factory complex at 2101 Washington Avenue, formerly home to the Frankford Candy & Chocolate Company, is likely the next piece of Philadelphia’s history to be razed and replaced with new construction. The sale of the property to developer Ori Feibush, owner of OCF Realty, was finalized on April 16. Feibush purchased the building for $15.5 million, nearly double the $8 million that the previous owners paid in November 2015. Feibush plans to demolish the majority of the structure and build a five-story retail and apartment complex in its place. The plan also includes townhouses.
The 19th century brick structure functioned as a working factory for well over 100 years and was occupied by Frankford Chocolate Co. as recently as 2006. Just last year the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of an effort by the former owner to convert the main building into condominiums. A nomination to legally protect the factory from demolition through placement on the local historic register is currently pending.
Why elect to destroy an historic landmark that is eligible for federal and state historic tax credits rather than reuse the building? Feibush claims that the cost of stabilizing and rehabbing the existing structure would simply be too large of a burden for him, despite the fact that in 2017 the former owners planned to do just that.
Last year architecture firm Cecil Baker + Partners were hired by the previous owners to develop a plan for the building that included the adaptive reuse of the entirety of the main structure. The Kennett Square-based consortium of owners were also working with U3 Ventures to facilitate a community planning process, and a number of proposed plans were presented to the South of South Neighborhood Association for input and comment.
Feibush said that the last plan presented by Cecil Baker + Partners in 2017 would have involved the complete demolition of the existing structures, a claim that isn’t true. When reached for comment, architect Cecil Baker responded that earlier in the design process the firm had prepared plans for multiple scenarios that included partial and full demolition of the factory. Baker explained that “[the alternate plans] were all discarded when we ascertained the value of keeping the historical components, including the tax credits available for adaptive reuse.”
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, contacted the design team who prepared the earlier proposal. He said that both Cecil Baker, the project architect, and Bob Powers, an architectural historian, have vigorously objected to the classification of the building as structurally unsound and feel that it is, in fact, a good candidate for reuse.
Feibush has publically stated that he is willing to let anyone tour the property. When the Preservation Alliance contacted the developer to tour the site with an independent structural engineer and masonry expert to get a second opinion, Feibush said no. However, he did give Steinke and Patrick Grossi, the Alliance’s advocacy director, a tour of the building sans engineers on April 20. When Feibush was asked if he would be willing to let the Alliance bring in a third party engineer to inspect the building he replied that he would not.
Steinke recalled that before the revitalization of downtown Philadelphia, factory conversions in the late 1980s and early 1990s were widely pursued by developers to create distinctive new living spaces. A number of real estate firms have completed successful warehouse conversions with buildings that posed similar challenges like the Chocolate Works, the Wireworks, and the Packard Motor Car Building. Steinke, dismayed that the city will be losing a building that less than a year ago was deemed ideal for rehabilitation and structurally sound, said, “Why have we lost our creative spark when it comes to adapting our historic buildings?”
While it is true that adaptive reuse projects require additional investment, there are a number of financial incentives and mechanisms that real estate developers can utilize. Although Philadelphia is certainly lacking in preservation incentives when compared to peer cities, a number of successful, large-scale reuse projects have set an example in recent years including the Divine Lorraine, A.F. Bornot Dye Works, and Orinoka Mills. Work on others large projects, like the Metropolitan Opera House, the Beury Building, and Red Bell Brewery, are either currently underway or in the advanced planning stages.
Entangled in this most recent scenario are a number of issues that point to the City’s lack of vision and integration of historic preservation as an important part of the municipal planning and development process. Despite the attempt to brand and market Philadelphia as a “World Heritage City,” the city has actually experienced a dramatic increase in the destruction of historic properties since acquiring the dubious title in 2015. Playing a significant role in this problem is the lack of coordination between City agencies to promote preservation and adaptive reuse as financially viable and productive development options.
In March 2018, 2101 Washington Avenue was cited with five violations by the Department of Licenses and Inspections, which upgraded the old factory’s status from “unsafe” to “imminently dangerous.” According to Philadelphia Code, “imminently dangerous structural elements are those which are in such a state of damage, deterioration, or removal that collapse is expected at any time.”
According to L&I spokesperson Karen Guss, the dramatic change from unsafe to imminently dangerous came after loose bricks on a sidewalk were reported. “2101 Washington was on the list of unsafe buildings that L&I monitors through reoccurring inspections, but this particular inspection was initiated when Councilman Kenyatta Johnson alerted Commissioner Perri to reports of bricks falling from the building.” Steinke noted that during his walk through the property he only noticed fallen bricks from one small appendage on the 22nd Street side of the property.
Once a building is deemed imminently dangerous the property owner is required to submit an engineer’s report on the building’s condition and propose a course of action. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Feibush hired engineers from Pennoni and Orndorf & Associates to provide a report. The firms’ conclusion was that the property was in dangerous condition. The City has yet to independently assess the property’s current condition nor are they legally bound to do so.
Some trained preservationists have pointed out that the assessment protocol administered by L&I is flawed and does not mandate nor provide an objective opinion. For example, the lack of assessment by an engineer well-versed in adaptive reuse projects and not employed by the property owner calls the integrity of the process into question. It also provides the basis for the interested party to make the case that rehabilitation is simply too cost prohibitive without any additional burden of proof.
Without an imminently dangerous citation, the owner of an historic property seeking to demolish or drastically alter it would have to file for financial hardship in order to prove that a building is too expensive to rehabilitate. Submissions for financial hardship are overseen by the Philadelphia Historical Commission by a process outlined in the City’s preservation ordinance, which requires much more substantial proof to support the claim.
A financial hardship claim, however, only comes into play if the property is listed on the local register. A nomination for 2101 Washington Avenue was submitted in December 2017 by real estate agent and current OCF employee Dennis Carlisle.
The pending nomination would normally put the property under the jurisdiction of the Historical Commission until the full commission votes to either designate it or not, but an imminently dangerous citation circumvents the process, putting the property’s fate in the hands of L&I instead.
After the nomination was submitted in December, Carlisle was hired by Feibush in January to serve as OCF Realty’s director of real estate acquisition and research. Carlisle then appeared before the Historical Commission in March and asked that his nomination be retracted. His professional relationship to Feibush and new position with OCF Realty was disclosed at the meeting. The Commission rejected Carlisle’s request, stating that the nomination would have to go through the standard process.
The nomination was reviewed on April 18 by the Committee on Historic Designation, where it was unanimously recommended for designation. An attorney representing Feibush was in attendance and asked that Carlisle’s nomination be retracted on the basis that L&I had recently deemed the property imminently dangerous. The request was denied by the Committee and clarified that the group is solely responsible for assessing the merit of the nomination.
In his nomination Carlisle expressed the threat of redevelopment that the building faced. He wrote, “In the Philadelphia of the 21st century, real estate development has exploded to levels unseen in this city in decades. Numerous historical buildings are being demolished or heavily altered for new developments. It is imperative that 2120 Washington Avenue be protected from demolition and given an extra layer of protection in the face of major alteration by placement on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.”
When Carlisle was asked why he is now attempting to retract the nomination, he replied that after it was submitted to the Historical Commission, Feibush, a long-time acquaintance, contacted him to let him know that the developer had the building under contract. Feibush then offered him a tour of the property. Upon seeing the interior first hand, Carlisle concluded that “by submitting the nomination, I may be locking the property into perpetual dereliction.”
A zoning permit for demolition has been issued by L&I. This first step would normally be premature for a property pending evaluation for listing on the local historic register as the building would remain under the jurisdiction of the Historical Commission. In the case of a property cited by L&I as imminently dangerous, however, the owner of a building may move forward with demolition.
Steinke is not optimistic about the proposed plan. “The bitter truth appears to be that we are about to see defeat taken from the jaws of victory. In December we were on the verge of an exciting adaptive reuse project. By April we are facing nearly 80% demolition by a different owner.” The Alliance plans to move ahead with exploring other options for delaying demolition, although representatives from L&I stated that the agency will not postpone issuing permits.