A man who spent $20,000 to clean up a rubbish-strewn and weed-filled lot next to his Philadelphia coffee shop is now in trouble with the city for supposedly putting public safety at risk.
Ori Feibush, owner of OCF Realty and OCF Coffee House, said he spent his own money to clean up the neighborhood eyesore next to his business last month. After trying to purchase the 1,600-square-foot lot for years, he said he reached the end of his rope about a week before his coffee shop's grand opening on Aug. 16.
"I didn't wake up one morning and spend tens of thousands of dollars to remove blight that was a danger to residents and customers," he said.
Feibush, 28, had visited the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority on Aug. 8 to complain about the lot and outline his plan for it. He was told the agency would clean the lot and that he was not permitted to enter it.
"They promised they would get around to it," Feibush said. "I did not believe I could open up a coffee shop when people couldn't traverse the sidewalk."
He said he finally cleaned up the lot out of "frustration," poured a new sidewalk, and placed a bench and picnic table. He said parents, children and dog-walkers are visiting the property now. Previously, the homeless would sleep behind the nine-foot weeds.
Soon enough, city offcials came out to the lot and called him a "trespasser."
Feibush told the Philadelphia Daily News that once the city got wind that Feibush had cleaned up the lot, he received an email on Aug. 13 that read, "You are requested to immediately stop all work and return the j-barriers to the original location."
Paul Chrystie, director of communications for Philadelphia's Office of Housing and Community Development, said the city had put barriers on its property for the safety of the public and to prevent dumping.
While the property was not in the best condition, it had not been ignored, said Chrystie.
A crew had visited the lot at least eight times within the year before Aug. 8. Two days later, a crew cleaned debris from the property.
"There are hundreds of agreements in Philadelphia allowing private citizens to use public lots," he said in a statement. "Mr. Feibush chose not to pursue one, which is not fair to the taxpayers who are foregoing revenue and accepting liability, nor to the three potential buyers who have followed the rules that Mr. Feibush is ignoring."
Feibush said he disputes that crews had actually cleaned up the property.
"I've been past that corner every day for the past seven years and have never seen it looking better than the day before," Feibush said.
Feibush, a developer in Philadelphia for seven years, said this is not the first time he encountered red tape in the city.
"What I don't understand is why they didn't consider that previous site to be a liability for them," he said.
He said around the time he purchased the property for the coffee shop in 2008, he had tried to buy the vacant lot next door, but he said he was passed from one city office to another. More than once, he was told by officials that the city did not own the lot.
On four occasions, because some paperwork showed there were "Jersey" barriers surrounding the lot, he was absurdly told he had to contact authorities in New Jersey.
He said it took him years to get approved to purchase the lot across the street from the coffee shop, where he intends to build single-family homes.
Feibush said if the city allowed it, he would purchase the adjacent lot "at fair market value tomorrow."
He estimates that it is worth around $70,000 to $80,000, based on his purchase across the street.
He plans to continue to "maintain the garden and pick up trash and so it looks the way a lot should look in the city of Philadelphia and not a piece of squalor."
After the city "ignored" this lot for decades, Feibush said he is surprised it has taken such an interest, even visiting the site hourly when his work crew cleaned up the property to tell them to stop.
"What I'm hoping the next step of the city is to take other lots and try to clean them up instead of focusing on this one lot," he said.