Court procedure questions give Bunting House a temporary reprieve
December 5, 2012By Amy Z. Quinn for NewsWorks
Roxborough's embattled Bunting House is safe from the wrecking ball at least for a few more days, while a judge decides whether to issue an injunction to block the planned demolition of the house at Ridge and Roxborough avenues.
At a civil court hearing Tuesday, Judge A.J. Snite said he believed he may have been incorrectly assigned the case and was reluctant to issue a ruling. Instead, the judge heard arguments from both sides but said he would await word from Judge Idee Fox, who supervises the civil motions program, on whether he can issue a ruling.
Opponents to the plans to clear all of the land at 5901, 5905, 5907 and 5909 Ridge Avenue for future redevelopment argued in court that a demolition permit issued in September to bring the Bunting House down was improper, as it indicates the site will be turned into a vacant lot.
Attorney Hal Schirmer, representing the Central Roxborough Civic Association and the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, said because "vacant lot" is not listed among allowable uses for the property in that commercial zone, it is prohibited by the code.
Both Carl Primavera, lawyer for owners Giovannone Construction, and city attorney Andrew Ross disputed that, asserting a vacant lot is not a use so much as a non-use, and therefore Schirmer was interpreting the code incorrectly.
"There is no impediment to demolition," Primavera argued. "The theory that you need a special ruling from the zoning board to create a vacant property is absurd on its face."
He said the owners had made a good-faith effort to find new tenants for the Bunting House, a scenario that would allow it remain while the rest of the properties were developed. But he said the building's age, condition and lack of handicap compliance made it a no-go.
Frank and Tony Giovannone, who have built several projects in the area and have their offices on Paoli Avenue, appeared in court but did not speak with reporters.
Over a series of meetings with representatives of local civic groups and the Roxborough Development Corporation, some potential local tenants for the Bunting House came forward. But Primavera told the judge the owners were not obligated to accept any of those offers and called the situation a property-rights issue.
In addition to seeking a temporary restraining order to block demolition, Schirmer had also filed an appeal of the zoning permit allowing the vacant lot and an appeal with the Licenses and Inspections Review Board of the demolition permit. So far hearings on those matters have not been scheduled.
Since the last tenants moved out of the Bunting House in the fall, all of the properties have been empty, and there have been reports of vandals and thieves. Primavera called the situation "a calamity waiting to happen" and argued that opponents should be ordered to post a significant bond to pay for any damages or liability the owners incur while they're awaiting demolition. The judge held off on that, too.
For the city's part, Ross told the judge that while Philadelphia requires a vacant property license for existing buildings, that is done for property maintenance reasons, not zoning. He said Schirmer was attempting to connect unrelated issues.
"There's no such thing as a zoning use for a vacant property," Ross told the judge. "It's simply people who, because there is no remedy, are trying to make something up out of whole cloth."
Opponents to demolition also say the Bunting House is a historic property, though it is not officially designated so and does not appear on any registers of historic places.