NewsWorks Exclusive: Delay possible in plan to demolish historic Roxborough house
September 25, 2012By Amy Z. Quinn for NewsWorks
The building is located at 5901 Ridge Avenue in Roxborough.
A deal could be in the works to avoid, or at least delay for a month, the planned demolition of a 19th-century Roxborough house at the center of a burgeoning neighborhood preservation effort, NewsWorks has confirmed.
At a meeting held Monday afternoon, owners Frank and Anthony Giovannone agreed to consider putting off for 30 days the demolition of 5901 Ridge Ave., at the corner of Roxborough Avenue, said Josh Cohen, aide to Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.
"It was a fairly productive meeting, and the owners have agreed to at least consider staying the demolition," Cohen said last night. "I'm hopeful that we can at least get a 30-day stay."
Also attending the hour-long meeting, held at the office of the Roxborough Development Corp., were RDC executive director Bernard Guet, Central Roxborough Civic Association President Ed Hotham, and Kevin Smith, a Roxborough resident who is also president of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council.
Cohen said the Giovannones did not give a definitive answer, but were to check with their other business partners and are expected to make a decision Tuesday. At the same time, he said, Guet offered to work with the property owners -- who also own, and are planning to demolish, buildings at 5905, 5907 and 5909 Ridge Ave. -- to possibly find a tenant or tenants to take on 5901 Ridge and possibly keep it from the wrecking ball.
A community's preservation initiative
The ownership group, operating as 5901 Ridge LLC, secured demolition permits for the four properties on Sept. 6 and have permission to raze the properties as of Sept. 27 , but community interest in saving at least the corner building has exploded in recent days. A petition posted on the Change.org site on Monday had gathered more than 280 supporters as of last night, and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia posted an item on their blog calling on people to save the property.
Complicating the issue is the fact that while the property at 5901 Ridge Ave. is old -- built in the 1880s and reportedly once owned by Dr. Ross Bunting, a trustee of the Roxborough Home for Indigent Women -- neither the corner property nor the others are listed on the city's register of historic properties.
Cohen said the Councilman's office confirmed with the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections that the demolition permits were appropriately secured, and only a court injunction could legally halt the demolition.
Developers in decision mode
Right now, all four of the properties are empty of tenants, and the owners had claimed the corner property, until recently home to the Erb Law Firm, was structurally unsound. According to those who were at the Monday meeting, the owners may be backing off that assertion now, indicating that at least 5901 Ridge could be renovated enough to be attractive to tenants.
Smith said he thinks the property owners are feeling the pressure of a mounting community campaign to preserve 5901 Ridge Ave., but also come at it as businessmen looking to develop their land.
"As developers and property owners, I think they're a little put off by the fact that now everybody wants to tell them what they can do," Smith said.
The four parcels are zoned CMX-2, a base district that allows mixed uses, often ground-floor retail with residential above. The zone is meant to encourage pedestrian-friendly uses, with some restrictions, and prohibits things like tattoo parlors and gun shops. For a complete list of allowed uses in CMX-2 districts, see the table here.
Unclear plans for the site
In 2008, before the Giovannones bought the properties, the previous owner had secured zoning approval to demolish the sites and put up six four-story homes, though that plan never came to fruition. Cohen and Smith said the current property owners did not express a specific plan for what they would do with the lots once cleared.
There seemed to be less discussion at the meeting about saving the other three buildings, and while some have expressed dismay at seeing a stretch of busy Ridge Avenue razed, Smith said he understands why the owners might be reluctant to save the corner property alone. Though to him, having the attractive stone house on the corner would enhance the rest of any future development on the other lots.
"My thought is that whatever is built is going to look better with that house there," Smith said. "If you have to give something to get something, I'll take the corner [property]."
Cohen said contrary to the belief expressed by some neighbors on the Philadelphia Speaks message board, where the impending demolition has been a hot topic, the district council person doesn't have the power to simply put a halt to a legally-obtained demolition permit. The role for Jones' office in this, he said, is to put the relevant parties together and try to come up with a solution that works for everyone.