City Threatens Business Owner in Cleanup of Vacant Lot
Small-business owner Ori Fiebush is facing heat from Philadelphia housing officials after renovating a vacant lot next to his newly opened coffee shop.
The lot, which is owned by the city, was overgrown with weeds, littered with trash, and without a traversable sidewalk for years, Fiebush says.
“From a fundamental standpoint, if you’re opening a business next to a trash-strewn, despicable lot, it’s difficult to convince people to come and visit,” Fiebush says.
Fiebush owns the building next to the vacant lot and says he has tried to purchase the uninhabited space from the city. When that didn't work, he says, he asked the city if it would allow him to just clean up the lot. The city still said no.
Not wanting his coffee shop to abut the public eyesore, Fiebush says he decided to take matters into his own hands. Big mistake.
Ignoring the city's request that he leave the property alone, Fiebush says he went in and renovated the lot anyway. Spending close to $30,000 of his own money, he cleared the lot of trash, installed plants and benches, and redid the sidewalk. He admits that he received written and verbal demands from the city to stop, but says he shrugged them off and kept renovating.
“I knew that lot next to us would be the kiss of death,” he says. “I knew there was no other way.”
Now, however, Philadelphia’s redevelopment authority has gone beyond written demands and is reportedly threatening to take legal action, accusing Fiebush of trespassing.
"Like any property owner, [the authority] does not permit unauthorized access to or alteration of its property,” Paul D. Chrystie, director of communications at the Office of Housing and Community Development, told the Philadelphia Daily News. "This is both on principle (no property owner knowingly allows trespassing) and to limit taxpayer liability."
Fiebush says the Office of Housing and Community Development is telling him to put a barrier back around the lot and to stay out of it. According to the Daily News, Chrystie said that the office is currently reviewing its options. (At time of publication, Paul Chrystie’s office had not responded to Inc.'s request for comment.)
The coffee shop opened in late August, but Fiebush says it still isn’t getting much business--renovations or no. He blames the neighborhood's weak economic health: “There hasn’t been a new business there for 60 years; we knew that,” he says. “But we knew what would it would mean for the area. We had to be the pioneer.”