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If you’ve ever wondered if there is still such a thing as “the American dream,” a few hours with Meletios Athanasiadis might restore your faith. He and his mother came to the U.S. from Greece with very little, and by age 15 he’d dropped out of high school to run his own pizza shop. Thirty-plus years later, he’s still making pizza, at a hole-in-the-wall called El Greco on Second Street in Olde Kensington; and along the way he’s purchased about 20 properties in the area, fixer-uppers that he’s rented out to tenants and small businesses.
“I had these properties when I couldn’t even find tenants. Nobody wanted to live in this neighborhood,” he says. “I looked at it as a way to retire from the pizza business.”
Now, he feels like the rug is being pulled out from under him.
Seven of his properties are among 35 privately owned parcels (and 15 more owned by the city) concentrated along Bodine and Cadwallader streets between Oxford and Jefferson that have been taken by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority by eminent domain. The condemnations clear the way for a $14 million affordable-housing development by the Arab American Development Corporation in conjunction with New York-based Conifer Realty. The project would require state tax-credit funding and has already won a $1.8 million matching grant from the city. City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, in whose district the project lies, sponsored the legislation supporting the proposal, which she believes is essential to the revitalization of a block where a critical mass of blighted properties (including the city’s own poorly maintained lots) has prevented private development.
Moreover, it could be the “last chance” for affordable housing in Olde Kensington, says Marwan Kreidie, who heads the nonprofit Arab American Development Corporation. He sees the project — called Tajdeed, which means “renewal” in Arabic — as an important component to retaining socioeconomic diversity in an area where housing values are climbing. “This is one way to stabilize and keep some affordable housing in the neighborhood,” he says.
Athanasiadis sees it differently: “They’re stealing [the properties]. They’re taking my property, my tax dollars, and giving it to someone else.”
He sees his situation as similar to what occurred in Point Breeze last year: City Council in November passed legislation allowing 17 privately owned properties there to be taken by eminent domain — also for affordable housing in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood, and also over the loud objections of land owners and their allies, some of whom had planned to build market-rate housing on the land.
However, there are a few key differences: The blighted lots here are much more concentrated than those in Point Breeze — and arguably less ripe for private investment. Also unlike the Point Breeze lots, Athanasiadis’ properties include garages that are rented to small businesses: a car restorer and an auto-repair shop. Working around these businesses would apparently have tanked the tax-credit application, and therefore the project. Sánchez did, however, eliminate any owner-occupied homes from proposal.
But that doesn’t mean all residents were protected entirely. Letters dated Dec. 20 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority informed some property owners that title to their side lots or backyards had been taken on Dec. 18 — including at least two lots taken in error, according to Sánchez’s office. While the city began outreach efforts in September, some property owners didn’t fully understand the situation and felt taken by surprise.
In some cases, property owners say, title was transferred before they had even received an official offer of compensation.
Tamara and Henry Asta say they bought the lot comprising their side yard on Cadwallader Street years ago for $10,000, and have tended it into a vegetable garden with a cherry tree. They’ve been saving up to build a garage on part of the lot. The city’s offer of $17,000, they say, isn’t sufficient enticement. “I’m using the land. I don’t want to sell it,” Tamara says. Kreidie says he tried to negotiate with the couple; possibilities included swapping the side lot for a larger backyard. He’d still like to work with them. But the Astas feel they shouldn’t have to negotiate on land they already owned.
Nicolasa Doheny, who bought a pair of lots across the street from her house at 1506-08 N. Bodine Street in 1996 so that her young daughters would have a yard to play in, is willing to sell. But she says the lots were appraised at around $30,000 apiece, and the city has offered half that. She has one year to appeal the compensation.
Offers are based on appraisals and are meant to be market rate. But Athanasiadis is doubtful he’ll get what he thinks his properties are worth. He points to 1529 Cadwallader St., for which he says the city offered him $43,000. “I paid $55,000 in 2004, and then I had to make improvements, I had to pay interest. But that’s the only offer I received from the city, and they made the offer after they took possession over my property. They become gods [acting unilaterally].”
It’s not hard to see where Athanasiadis is coming from: He took a risk and bet on a neighborhood when it was on the rocks, and now he may not reap the reward. And yet, there’s a word for buying land in expectation of rising prices: speculation. From the city’s perspective, it takes development, not speculation, to raise up a neighborhood.
It’s hard to argue that the Arab American Development Corporation’s plan won’t be a bigger boost to the area than the sprawl of garages, vacant houses and weed-filled lots that now dominate the site. The proposal is for 45 low- and moderate-income rental units designed by Onion Flats to meet the ultra-high-efficiency “passive-house” standard and, Kreidie hopes, embellished with Arabic motifs. Kreidie expects to learn by March whether the project will win Low Income Housing Tax Credit support from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. He also hopes to add ground-floor commercial space, though funding for that is even less certain. One possibility: an investment by the adjacent Al-Aqsa Mosque, which could rent units as allowed by sharia banking law — though Kreidie is quick to point out that he runs a social-service organization, entirely separate from the mosque.
While some may not like it, Sánchez says, “This is exactly the type of situation where eminent domain is a crucially needed tool to … pave the way for new development and re-investment, while taking care not to displace current homeowners. It is also an example of why Philadelphia desperately needs a land bank to more quickly and efficiently transfer abandoned land for redevelopment, long before blight and vacancy reaches this level.”