Developing the 2nd District, Ori Feibush style
There was only one parameter for this interview: it was to be a walking tour in the 2nd District according to Ori Feibush.
For those just getting here, Feibush entered the South Philly stage as a controversial developer, and now he’s taking on incumbent 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. So far, the race has drawn analogies to the boxing ring, with plenty of name-calling and allegations being thrown around. Our walk-and-talk with Johnson can be found here.
AL DÍA wants to keep it simple. Each candidate was asked to show us around, talk about the problems at hand, and state plainly why he’s the best fit for the job.
‘I’m out of development’
Race and economics aside, the 2nd District is geographically diverse as well. It stretches from southwest Center City through the southwest neighborhoods, and then all the way down to the Navy Yard, the Airport, and across the Schuylkill River. Both candidates chose to meet in Point Breeze, just a few blocks apart.
Feibush had us begin at his business, OCF coffee shop, on Point Breeze Avenue. We walked south on Point Breeze Avenue. We stopped by a new construction site brokered by his company OCF Realty. We walked past two blighted warehouses. We knocked on doors of the so-called affordable housing units. We didn’t go south of Wharton Street or west of 22nd.
This is the developing part of the neighborhood, and Feibush illustrates some of the problem areas.
“Anyone in this commercial corridor who wants to open up a business here literally has to hit the lottery before they have a chance,” he said, pointing to over a dozen empty storefronts on Point Breeze Avenue.
It took him three years of zoning and negotiations to open up his coffee shop. Each new business in the area needs Councilmanic approval before it can open, and on the struggling Point Breeze Avenue, Feibush believes there needs to be an environment for small businesses.
Take the two block-sized warehouse on Wharton Street, one of which Feibush owns.
The building is zoned for industrial use, and to switch the code to residential or commercial would meet “severe” obstacles, Feibush said. To him, the warehouses should be turned into more housing. They would put eyes on the street, connecting the northern and southern parts of Point Breeze.
In 2012, Feibush made national (and even international) headlines for developing a city-owned lot adjacent to his coffee shop. He defended his own case against what he saw as the city’s self-perpetuating blight. At the same time, Feibush also installed security cameras and trash cans along Point Breeze Avenue using his own dime.
Fast forward to the City Council race, Feibush still finds himself defending the benefits of new development to the district’s constituents.
“There’s a considerable amount of fear-mongering that has occurred with the leadership in our city that would say somehow a four-story building would price somebody out, or something to that effect, and the end result is that the community doesn’t get the amenities that it needs.”
Two paths, same problem
On maybe two dozen nuanced issues, Johnson and Feibush agree that there should be better schools in the district, safer streets, and more jobs across all city districts. Every person running for public office could agree on those things. But to Feibush, it’s the next 40 or 50 words that separate the two candidates.
Discounting a home by $50,000 a la Johnson’s affordable housing plan is not a realistic approach to lifting people out of poverty, Feibush believes. Moreover, he claims that very few if any of the homeowners who have purchased the affordable homes grew up in the community.
Knocking on a few doors of the so-called affordable housing units, Feibush illustrates that at least some of them are owned and occupied by young, mostly white newcomers to the neighborhood. “They’re being bought by people I went to college with,” Feibush said, citing strict income requirements, but no asset limits. So what has happened, he says, is that well-to-do families can give their young kids money for a down payment.
“It’s not that I don’t want affordable housing,” Feibush said, breathing heavily between his words. “I just want to fix the issue.”
From a developer’s perspective, Feibush believes you can’t build new construction and make it affordable. The main issues hurting homeowners is a lack of money to fix their existing problems — a leaky roof, a broken boiler, a collapsed sewer line. For every one affordable home being bought in this community, he says the city could take that money and apply it to seniors and community homeowners to fix people’s home.
Meanwhile, it’s the area’s tenants that risk displacement the most.
Just to the north of Point Breeze, Graduate Hospital has seen a significant demographic shift over the last 15 years. Housing prices went up without any new businesses or amenities. Renters were rapidly outpriced, and the lowest income residents (especially people of color) had to find a cheaper neighborhood.
“If you’re looking at Point Breeze and you don’t want to repeat what happened [in Graduate Hospital] where you have a complete demographic shift, let’s focus on rebuilding our commercial corridors and investing in our schools first and foremost. And then worry about everything else.”
Feibush admits that he hasn’t nurtured the best possible reputation as a negotiator over the years.
“I’m brash. I made mistakes. I’ve said the wrong things at the wrong time,” he said. “But everyone has. I’m running because I want to move our city forward. Because I hate pay-to-play. I hate the lack of transparency, the feeling of being robbed and not even being aware of it. And I’m not running because the other guy isn’t a good guy. I’m running because I believe I could do a much better job than he can, and I could bring a lot to the table that’s not currently available in City Hall.”
He then beats himself to the punch: How can somebody who supports for-profit development have the best interests of the community at heart? While OCF realty still brokers real estate deals in the area, Feibush wants it to be clear that he’s out of the development game.
“This discouragement of development harms the existing community more than it harms anyone else. I get that that is a difficult pill to swallow coming from a guy who has historically built homes. If this commercial corridor was to get rebuilt immediately, it would create hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of jobs for the community.”
For Feibush, key commercial developments like a grocery store within walking distance are the linchpins of redevelopment, and they should happen with as little governmental interference as possible.
“The very policies that exist right now are stopping that from happening,” he added. “Why? Just from a fear of the area getting better?”
But at the same time, he feels that to suggest as Johnson does that he’s incapable of building consensus is simply untrue. Currently Feibush is reaching out to diverse branches of the community. His campaign materials have been translated into over half a dozen languages, and he says he wants everyone’s input.
Does he see a difference between oldtimers and newcomers in terms of their needs?
“There is no one who would benefit more from an active commercial corridor than the existing community,” he said. “But this notion that one party has to benefit more than another party is upsetting to me. It suggests there’s a loser in every situation.”