Tag Archives: blight

Risky Business in Germantown

Nuisance businesses and commercial blight can be a real problem in cities.

Here, we are going to look at one example of a business currently operating unchecked by the City of Philadelphia, with no regard for the rules and regulations put into place to protect the community.

Tires & Service at 4800 Germantown Avenue

At 4800 Germantown Avenue, between W Wyneva Street and W Rockland Street, sits a 18,584 square foot auto service shop and tire reseller called Tires & Service. Residents have become increasingly concerned about the risk and danger of tire storage sites in the largely residential neighborhood of Germantown. The amount of tires stored at the shop grows each day, increasing from a few hundred to well over a thousand in a matter of months. When the business in question turns out to be operating illegally, concerns are only magnified. The tire shop has tire piles just five feet away from the first house on W Rockland Street and ten feet away from the first house on Wyneva Street.

The big fear is that a long-burning tire fire could destroy homes on nearby blocks.


Click to enlarge. View more photos on Flickr

Many Philadelphians still remember the great eight-alarm tire fire of 1996 that compromised the structural integrity of I-95, caused the Health Department to issue air quality advisories, injured two firefighters and slowed commuter traffic for weeks. The fire started in an illegal tire yard underneath the highway and caused over 6 million dollars in damage. (Side note: Larry! Stephanie!)

Secondary issues raised by neighbors include the likelihood of a mosquito infestation in the summer months and the unsightly condition of the property. There are lots of other problems with Tires & Services, of course:

  • According to the Licensing & Inspections website, all business operating licenses for the property are expired (all licenses listed were for previous businesses over the years, not the current shop, Tires & Service)
  • The business does not have an Auto Wrecking Yard / Tire Storage License [detail]
  • The business does not have a Commercial Activities License [detail]
  • Tires vertically stacked over 15 high in heaps are collecting water, within 5 feet of nearby homes
  • The business did not shovel snow all winter along the perimeters of the property on W Rockland Street, Germantown Avenue or Wyneva Street
  • Initially, the business was not open at all hours, but after just a few months, signs were installed advertising 24-hours a day, 7-days a week services; no notice was given to nearby residents

Zoning and ownership

4800 Germantown Avenue is zoned CMX25 Commercial / Commercial Mixed-Use and listed as an Auto Repair Shop.

Tires & Services are renting the property. The owners of 4800 Germantown Avenue were found using Philadelinquency.com’s genius property search feature:

Jacob Gabbay
Judith Gabbay et al
Cobris Properties
1314 Chestnut Street, 10th Floor
Philadelphia PA 19107

4800 Germantown Avenue, which has been occupied by several different businesses over the years, has a long history of Licensing & Inspections violations.

LI_violations_4800 Germantown Avenue

What’s the 311?

philly311_logoMany neighbors have mentioned that they have called the City’s Philly 311 hotline by phone about problems at Tires & Services.

Digging into public Philly311 records, one online complaint was submitted 8 months ago (August 12, 2013: Tires! Mosquitos! Dog Feces! Trash!). The report raised several issues, from mosquito problems to the abundance of tires and dog feces. Licensing & Inspections visited Tires & Service and closed the ticket with the conclusion that the complaint was unfounded.

Here is where we have a problem. Too many 311 complaints get the “Service Request Completed / Unfounded” tag to the bewilderment of the citizen reporter, leaving problems to persist and neighbors unsure of how to follow up.

A new 311 request was submitted for this business on April 16, 2014. The ticket number is 342740.

As it stands, Tires & Service is still a mess. It’s time for Licensing & Inspections to call a supervisor because another unfounded 311 ticket designation isn’t going to cut it.


Google Maps street view of 4800 Germantown Avenue from W Rockland Street. Gibson Auto Repair was operating at the site prior to the opening of Tires & Services in 2013.

Google Maps street view of 4800 Germantown Avenue from W Rockland Street before the tires and the opening of Tires & Services in 2013.


Click to enlarge. View more photos on Flickr

A few good rules and regulations…

For City officials and neighborhood advocates, included below are a list of rules and regulations surrounding this type of operation. No Philadelphia citizen should be required to have to figure this out in order to address a neighborhood problem.

Tire fires in popular culture... The Simpson's long-burning Springfield Tire Fire is always on fire, though it was extinguished a few times.

Tire fires in popular culture… The Simpson’s long-burning Springfield Tire Fire is always on fire, though it was extinguished a few times.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

According to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Waste Management Inspection Report on Residual Waste Tire Storage Facilities, there are dozens of requirements that prevent Tires & Service from operating their facility.

Here are a few line items from the DEP inspection checklist Tires & Service do not meet or are violating, which anyone can see in plain sight:

  • Surface area of outdoor tire pile is not greater than 2,500 square feet.
  • Within 300 feet from an occupied dwelling, unless the owner thereof has provided a written waiver consenting to the activities.
  • Within 50 feet of a property line unless the owner has provided a written waiver consenting to the facility being closer than 50 feet.
  • Vertical height of outdoor tire pile is not greater than 15 feet.
  • Corridors or firebreaks on all sides of outdoor tire pile of at least 50 feet.
  • Firebreaks for outdoor tire piles are free of waste, equipment and structures.
  • Outdoor storage of waste tires conducted to control mosquito propagation.
  • Preparedness, Prevention and Contingency (PPC) for outdoor storage plan prepared and maintained at the waste tire storage facility and be updated annually.

Read more


Germantown’s 21st century struggles (and triumphs) on display in new exhibit at the Historical Society

How did a fence riddled with musket ball holes from the American Revolutionary War and an old wooden rake come to symbolize Germantown’s 21st century struggles with blight, poverty and gun violence?

This summer, visitors to the Germantown Historical Society will see a curious display of hand-picked objects from residents of the neighborhood alongside the permanent collection. In the mix are two pieces that my sister Aine and I discovered in the basement storage rooms.

The Historical Society is experimenting with the concept of community curation. The museum and research center, dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of the original German Township in Northwest Philadelphia, invited seven Germantowners to explore its vast collection of 20,000+ objects and select items from the archives for the public exhibition, Claiming Our Place: Inhabit Germantown.

A room in the basement of the Germantown Historical Society

A room in the basement of the Germantown Historical Society

Participants were asked “to instigate dialogue – to talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves or others ideas and issues important to us as a neighborhood, past, present and future.”

The creative endeavor was funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage under the auspices of the “No Idea is Too Ridiculous” program – which is definitely true in this case.

On our quest for exhibition objects, the Historical Society’s Barbara Hogue and Carolyn G. Faris led us through room after room, some with shelves lined with dolls and other artifacts, boxes of textiles, dresses and old undergarments (once worn by Germantowners, of course!) stacked high, and a full library of books, manuscripts, maps, and images.

I thought it would be difficult for my sister and I to settle (and agree) on an object, but as soon as we saw a section of fence from the historic Johnson House, dated c. 1770, we easily came to a consensus, pairing it with an old wooden rake (date unknown).

We were drawn to objects from Germantown’s past that connected with The W Rockland Street Project, our citizen-driven effort to revitalize one city block in Southwest Germantown.

Johnson House fence, dated c. 1770, with an old wooden rake (date unknown)

Johnson House fence, dated c. 1770, with an old wooden rake (date unknown)

Modern yard rakes and other simple gardening tools are not so different from the early tools you’ll find in museums. They symbolize the physical labor and hard work that goes into maintaining our public and private outdoor spaces. Simply cleaning up is one of the cheapest ways to improve the look and feel of a neighborhood, while building community at the same time. The many cleanups and greening activities that W Rockland Street participates in shows just how far sweat equity and back to basics organizing can take one community.

Staff at the Historical Society were excited to bring the never before exhibited Johnson House fence out of the archives.

In the fence, we see Germantown’s 21st century struggles – with blight, poverty and gun violence.

Its physical characteristics are not so different than the wooden fences we see everyday protecting the lots on our block and vacant land across the city. (Is it a sign that you’re from Philadelphia when ordinary fences make you think about NTI (Neighborhood Transformation Initiative) fencing?) 

Vacant lot at the corner of W Rockland and Greene Street

Vacant lot at the corner of W Rockland and Greene St in June 2013. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society installed this fence at our request in December 2012, though not officially part of the LandCare Program, which maintains select vacant lots across the city.

Sometimes I think about the lost neighborhood history and the houses and buildings that formerly stood in their place. Looking around at the many crumbling structures still standing, its hard to swallow the fact that there will be more lots in the future as declining buildings are demolished.

recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer about Germantown’s neoclassical Town Hall building and other looming vacant landmarks warned “the damage can be lessened if the city gets serious about protecting them, by boarding them up securely and inspecting the properties regularly.” It’s hard to believe that will happen when it rarely happens at the residential level.

On W Rockland Street, there are 46 three-story, century old row homes with seven lots scattered in-between. Homes lost to fire and neglect once stood in these gaps. I no longer remember them. Fences now frame the open spaces. They become what you make them.

We worked alongside our neighbors to build a vibrant community garden in one of our block’s lots, but we struggle to reimagine the others. Maintaining the land and keeping the lots free of the chronic illegal dumping that plagued them just a few years ago is the most we can do right now.

At the same time, the Johnson House fence also bears the scars of war. The rifle ball holes in the fence are reputed to be from the Battle of Germantown, fought on October 4, 1777 in the American Revolutionary War. The musket balls lying on the museum floor actually fell out of this very fence.

Last summer, a lifelong resident of our block was murdered in another type of war, set in another century. On Friday, August 17, 2012, Bryan Jones, 48, was shot to death while sitting on the porch of his family’s W Rockland Street row home. Bryan was the 226th person murdered in Philadelphia that year. The case remains unsolved to this day.

Johnson House with bullet-riddled fence

Johnson House with bullet-riddled fence – Archival photo (date unknown)

Inhabit Germantown will be on view from June 27 to September 13, 2013, Tuesdays 9 am – 1 pm, Thursdays 1 pm – 5 pm, and Sunday hours by appointment. The exhibition features objects selected by seven Germantowners – Aine and Emaleigh Doley, Renny MolenaarYahne NdgoKristin Haskins SimmsStephanie Grauman Wolf, and David W. Young. The Germantown Historical Society is located at 5501 Germantown Avenue at Church Lane. Go visit! germantownhistory.org

Harvard panel on Philadelphia sparks thoughts on the dilapidated built environment

By Emaleigh | Last week, I ended a job, got a new one and went to Cambridge on the fly to attend The Philadelphia Story: Planning. Politics. Reality, a panel at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Everything aligns in a Philadelphia story, right? The event was organized by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron, who is on a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, and fellow Loeb Anne-Marie Lubenau, who has worked to transform Pittsburgh – PA’s second largest city – through design of the built environment.

Speakers included Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter; Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development; Harris Steinberg, Director, PennPraxis; and Glen Abrams, Manager of Policy and Strategic Initiatives, Office of Watersheds. One might expect to find this group at City Hall, but here they all were in Massachusetts.

The Philadelphia Story - photo via Changing Skyline

The Philadelphia Story was a walk through the city’s planning past to today’s scene. The audience heard about Greenworks Philadelphia, stormwater infrastructure initiatives and the innovative “Green City, Clean Waters” control plan, the Master Plan for the Central Delaware and the unfortunate expansion of the Sugar House Casino, the challenges of I-95, limitations of the city’s former transactional political system, the need to institutionalize programs and create systems beyond the 4-year plan, and then some. Head over to Inga Saffron’s blog or check out Ashley Hahn’s story on PlanPhilly for detailed accounts of the panel. For more about how the event influenced my own thinking, stay right here.

Part I: Planning and the Dilapidated Built Environment

The path of the conversation at Harvard pushed me to consider planning that effects Philadelphia’s struggling neighborhoods. My perspective is weighted by my experience in Germantown these past few years and the concentrated neighborhood improvement and stabilization efforts that my sister and I are spearheading on W Rockland Street.

I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the dilapidated built environment. Philadelphia is lined with aging houses in declining conditions. Given the number of Philadelphians living in poverty and the high rate of joblessness, among other factors, home repairs won’t make the priorities list any time soon.

When I pass through parts of Southwest Germantown in particular, I picture the scene 10-20 years ahead, looking beyond abandoned properties and at the conditions of occupied houses. I see my own block.

There is a tremendous need for home repair and improvement assistance programs. It feels like a crisis to me, one that without strategic, widespread action will damn neighborhoods in limbo, threatening the growth of the city.

Who is planning for Philadelphia’s neighborhoods that are literally falling apart, where residents struggle to maintain century year-old houses (like those on W Rockland Street), where gap-toothed blocks of row homes are dotted with vacant lots?

At Harvard, Mayor Nutter remarked, “Changing systems is one thing, changing culture is another.” My connecting point here is that there is a need for a system that is scaled for Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, like Germantown, which is focused exactly on that – changing culture in struggling neighborhoods, not through social services, but through planning and design and urban interventions that in turn build community, engage residents and set a new tone.

Read more

Abandoned Properties: 4815 Greene Street and 4817 Greene Street

At the intersection of W Rockland Street and Greene Street (on Greene) there are two abandoned homes that are still standing but that were also destroyed by a fire over 20 years ago. The exact date is unknown, I’d have to ask around, but basically it’s been a long, long time. The addresses of the homes are 4815 Greene Street and 4817 Greene Street. The property owners are long gone. The houses are now the site of illegal dumping, drug use and vagrant activity and also a lovely home for neighborhood raccoons.

Over the years, we have called the city to get these homes at the very least boarded up, at best demolished. Still nothing.  Our last reports were directed to Philly311 on March 27, 2010. We were told that LNI would be out to inspect both properties within 45 days. We’ll see what happens this time…

4815 Greene Street and 4817 Greene Street, Philadelphia, PA 19144

West Philadelphia neighbors fight to save their block from an abandoned property

Just read two interesting articles in the news recently, one about a West Philadelphia block fighting to protect their community, the other a news story about the whopping 54,000 Philadelphians who applied for federal rent subsidies (Housing Choice Voucher program better known as Section8 housing) between March 2-15. 54,000!  More about the HCV program later.

The West Philly article includes an interview with Carolyn McClary, the longtime block captain who lives on the 1400 block of N Conestoga Street. She has been fighting to have an abandoned property near her home either sold or demolished. A good quote to think about:

“Some people decide to sell,” she says. “But for those who choose to stay, you worry that before you know it, it’s the whole block.” […] “Maybe I’m asking too much of this old neighborhood.”

No, Mrs. McClary, you’re not asking too much. People need to grow up and be held accountable for their actions on all sides. From the property owners to the city’s lagging paperwork. Looks like now that this article was published, the city is being leaned on to put that property up for sheriffs sale. I hope the situation changes sooner than later.

Read the full article mentioned above here:

W. Phila. neighbors fight to save their block
The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Kia Gregory | April 8, 2010