New L&I Commissioner Williams meets residents at PRWCAN meeting

Last week, Carlton Wil­li­ams, the new com­mis­sion­er of the Dept. of Li­censes and In­spec­tions, dis­cussed his plans for the of­fice with the Port Rich­mond West Com­munity Ac­tion Net­work.

At a monthly meet­ing of the Port Rich­mond West Com­munity Ac­tion Net­work last week, loc­als were privy to an abund­ance of im­port­ant in­form­a­tion.

Not only did they get to meet the new com­mis­sion­er of the city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tions, but they were told how valu­able their in­put is in crack­ing down on blight; they learned their prop­er­ties are safe from “em­in­ent do­main,” and they were re­as­sured that their con­cerns about a new home de­vel­op­ment pro­ject wouldn’t fall on deaf ears.

At the meet­ing, loc­als first met the new com­mis­sion­er of the city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tions (L&I), Carlton Wil­li­ams. Wil­li­ams said that the most im­port­ant goal as he enters of­fice is to make sure ab­sent­ee prop­erty own­ers are held ac­count­able for their prop­er­ties.

It is a lofty goal that was well re­ceived by all in at­tend­ance at the meet­ing, held Wed­nes­day, June 20 at Firm Hope Baptist Church at Au­burn and Agate streets.

“I know there are a num­ber of prop­er­ties here that we need to ad­dress,” Wil­li­ams said. “We can’t just go in there and start tear­ing them down.”

Loc­als wer­en’t shy about their con­cerns about blighted area prop­er­ties.

Memor­ies of the fatal fire April 9 at the Buck Ho­siery Build­ing in Kens­ing­ton were fresh, as many cited the dangers that aban­doned prop­er­ties bring to the neigh­bor­hood.

Wil­li­ams said that he cur­rently has a “highly skilled re­search team” comb­ing through lists of aban­doned and blighted prop­er­ties throughout the city, and that team is work­ing to make sure the ones that are “im­man­ently dan­ger­ous” are ad­dressed first.

He said that res­id­ents would need to be pa­tient, as of­ten­times leg­al ac­tion can delay work to get blighted or aban­doned prop­er­ties out of the hands of de­lin­quent own­ers and in­to the hands of those that will take care of them - and pay prop­erty taxes on them.

One wo­man in at­tend­ance dis­cussed a prop­erty on the 2300 block of Cam­bria Street that she said wasn’t only an im­me­di­ate danger to the com­munity, but that L&I in­spect­ors had viewed in the past.

These in­spect­ors, she said, might have missed ob­vi­ous is­sues with the prop­erty, like a col­lapsed wall and a front porch that was fall­ing apart.

Wil­li­ams said that in in­stances like this, in­spect­ors might have missed something if they viewed the prop­erty from the street.

He ac­know­ledged that neigh­bors know more about prop­erty is­sues be­cause they see the prob­lems on a daily basis, and an in­spect­or can only see what is vis­ible from the street.

He asked res­id­ents to con­tact L&I any time to dis­cuss prob­lem prop­er­ties and provide in­spect­ors with in­form­a­tion they can use when they make a site vis­it.

“An in­vest­ig­at­or can’t go on the roof or maybe can’t see in the back. That’s how we can use info from you,” he said.

The next prop­erty up for dis­cus­sion was a sealed prop­erty on the 2800 block of Mem­ph­is Street.

Loc­als said that L&I had sealed the build­ing a while back, but when it was sealed, left-be­hind garbage in­side was left to rot.

“It’s full of mag­gots,” shouted one wo­man from the back of the room.

Wil­li­ams took down in­form­a­tion on these prop­er­ties and prom­ised his team would in­vest­ig­ate.

At the meet­ing, City Coun­cil­man Mark Squilla (D-1st dist.) also stopped by to dis­cuss the city’s Ac­tu­al Value Ini­ti­at­ive, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter’s tax sys­tem that in­volves re­as­sess­ments of all prop­er­ties, which could bring $94 mil­lion to the Phil­adelphia School Dis­trict. Squilla said that City Coun­cil would post­pone this meas­ure un­til next year.

Dav­id Fecteau, a com­munity plan­ner for the city’s Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, talked about how his of­fice can help handle com­munity con­cerns.

While he dis­cussed how the city’s new zon­ing code at­tempts to in­clude com­munity groups - like the PRW­CAN - in­to its de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess, res­id­ents ex­pressed con­cern with how “em­in­ent do­main” works in the city.

Be­cause of con­fu­sion of how em­in­ent do­main is used, res­id­ents said they feared im­prov­ing their homes or even sup­port­ing neigh­bor­hood is­sues be­cause they wor­ried if the neigh­bor­hood looked bet­ter, de­velopers might take prop­er­ties through em­in­ent do­main.

Fecteau ac­know­ledged that he of­ten hears sim­il­ar com­plaints - es­pe­cially around parts of Kens­ing­ton close to Fishtown, where de­vel­op­ment is grow­ing and long­time res­id­ents fear gentri­fic­a­tion.

But, he said, that’s not how em­in­ent do­main works.

In­stead, Fecteau told the audi­ence that em­in­ent do­main is a right af­forded to loc­al gov­ern­ment when the city plans to use prop­erty for a civic good – it can gen­er­ally be im­ple­men­ted to ob­tain land to cre­ate a pub­lic park or af­ford­able hous­ing.

Private de­velopers can’t site em­in­ent do­main to se­cure private prop­erty. 

“If a de­veloper comes to you and says any­thing about tak­ing your prop­erty through em­in­ent do­main tell them they’re full of s***,” said Fecteau.

Fi­nally, Nora Lichtash, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Wo­man’s Com­munity Re­vital­iz­a­tion Pro­ject, dis­cussed a pro­pos­al to bring 36 homes - and 36 park­ing spots - to a va­cant lot at Au­burn Street and Trenton Av­en­ue.

However, she said that num­ber isn’t “writ­ten in stone,” and that the plan is in its in­fancy. That land, she said – which is the site of a former car­pet fact­ory – would need to un­der­go test­ing for en­vir­on­ment­al haz­ards and would need to have any con­tam­in­ants re­moved from the soil be­fore any work could be­gin.

Lichtash said the pro­ject would take nine months to a year to com­plete if it’s ap­proved for the area. But last week’s meet­ing was not a form­al present­a­tion; an­oth­er dis­cus­sion meet­ing will be held in Oc­to­ber.

“Right now, we have a lot of ideas, but they are just ideas about the site,” she told res­id­ents, some of whom ex­pressed con­cern over the pro­ject.

Neigh­bors wor­ried aloud that the pro­ject – which works to provide hous­ing for low-in­come wo­men and their fam­il­ies – could im­pact the prop­erty val­ues of their homes.

Lichtash replied that the homes would “look like [oth­er] neigh­bor­hood homes” and that the WCRP would be will­ing to work with neigh­bors to re­fine the plan in the com­ing months.

Star Staff Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be con­tac­ted at 215-354-3124 or hmit­

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