Northeast Times

Building hope

The abandoned building on Cottage Street in Frankford is a wreck. But for the church across the street, it’s an opportunity to enhance the community.

  • Falling down: At left, Elder Henry Howard Jr., the pastor of Keep the Faith Ministries, stands by a vacant building at Harrison and Cottage in Frankford. The congregation wants to purchase the property with plans to turn it into a community center. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • A church member observes falling plaster.

  • The church is seen through a broken window.

  • In 2001, the city paid $800 for the building, which it now lists as being worth $125,600. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

The three-story, five-sided brick struc­ture at Har­ris­on and Cot­tage in Frank­ford might have been a grand build­ing a long time ago. Not any­more. Yet, the con­greg­a­tion of the church across the street wants to bring it back, and its mem­bers are will­ing to spend big money and a lot of toil to do it.

How they might, or might not, get the chance de­pends on the con­greg­a­tion’s abil­ity to con­vince the own­er, the city of Phil­adelphia, that the im­mense job can be done and paid for. 

The church has to show it can “in­sure and se­cure” the prop­erty, said City Coun­cil­wo­man Maria Quinones Sanc­hez (D-7th dist.).

Right now, 4900-04 Cot­tage St. is a wreck. You might even say the place looks dan­ger­ous.

That is why in­sur­ing it so im­port­ant.

“The minute we turn the prop­erty over to the church, li­ab­il­ity is on the church,” the coun­cil­wo­man said. Right now, li­ab­il­ity is the city’s bur­den, she ad­ded. 

The win­dows on the up­per floors are all gone, with old vene­tian blinds hanging out of a few. The win­dows on the first floor are boarded up, and the doors are pad­locked. The out­side wall that faces Har­ris­on Street is so cracked, you’d think there had been an earth­quake in Frank­ford. You’re some­body who likes risk and is feel­ing lucky if you dare to climb the steps of the old met­al fire es­cape in the build­ing’s rear.

In­side, the plaster is fall­ing down, and the dust mixed in with the smell of an­im­al fe­ces makes breath­ing dif­fi­cult.

There is a tri­angle of green with stub­born old trees next to the build­ing that the Keep the Faith Min­is­tries con­greg­ants keep mowed, said Eld­er Henry Howard Jr., the pas­tor. Their fight against lit­ter and short dump­ing, however, is a los­ing one, he said, point­ing to trash piled up near the prop­erty’s rear on Val­ley Street. 

Howard said his con­greg­a­tion wants the prop­erty if it can get it for cheap or for free. The idea, he said, is to turn it in­to a com­munity cen­ter.

The first thing the church would do, Howard said, is fix up the ground floor to use for its soup kit­chen. Right now, the con­greg­a­tion provides food to the hungry twice a week from the church base­ment. The first floor would also have a com­puter room and activ­it­ies room for the con­greg­a­tion. When that is done, the con­greg­a­tion will start re­claim­ing the top two floors. 

The work won’t be cheap or easy, he said Aug. 13 as he looked over the build­ing. The roof is shot, and van­dals long ago trashed the in­teri­or. The pipes are gone, he said, and so is the boil­er.

People still get in­side.

“I don’t know how they get in,” he said, point­ing to the pad­locked doors and boarded first-floor win­dows. But they do, he said, adding some­times, he had seen lights on in­side a build­ing he thought had no util­ity con­nec­tions. PECO work­ers checked on that two weeks ago and found an il­leg­al con­nec­tion to power lines, which they dis­mantled.

Howard es­tim­ates it would cost $100,000 to re­pair the build­ing, take down some of the trees be­fore they fall down and fence the prop­erty’s small patch of green to curb the lit­ter and the dump­ing.

His con­greg­a­tion is will­ing to spend that and, Howard said, it has mem­bers who know how to do the work. But right now they are not go­ing to do any more than cut grass and haul away trash be­cause they don’t own the prop­erty.

Howard said the city wants $71,000 for it, which he said is not af­ford­able giv­en the money re­pairs would cost. He said the con­greg­a­tion has offered $10,000 for the build­ing, which the city picked up in a sher­iff’s sale, ac­cord­ing to Jam­ila Dav­is, a spokes­wo­man for the Of­fice of Hous­ing and Com­munity De­vel­op­ment. 

Ac­cord­ing to the Of­fice of Prop­erty As­sess­ment’s on­line re­cords, in Novem­ber 2001, the city paid $800 for the build­ing, which it now lists as be­ing worth $125,600. Dav­is said the build­ing was lis­ted as a va­cant com­mer­cial prop­erty. However, OPA re­cords show it as a res­id­en­tial struc­ture.

Earli­er this month, Eld­er Howard said he’d gladly give the city its $800.

In an Aug. 18 email to the North­east Times, Dav­is wrote that the church has been in ne­go­ti­ations with the city. If the church wants to ac­quire the prop­erty, it must show through bank state­ments or ac­count in­form­a­tion that it has the $10,000 it offered.

But, that’s not all.

The church also has to show a de­vel­op­ment and fin­an­cial plan, “in­clud­ing a list of the li­censed con­tract­ors that would do the work at nom­in­al cost or for free,” ac­cord­ing to Dav­is.

She wrote that the pas­tor has stated he has the re­sources to com­plete the re­hab work, but “those re­sources have to be demon­strated.”

The church also has to provide proof of the means to buy ma­ter­i­als and ob­tain the li­censes and in­spec­tions to do the job. 

A City Coun­cil com­mit­tee already has denied the church’s re­quest to ob­tain the prop­erty, ac­cord­ing to Coun­cil­wo­man Sanc­hez. The church has the good in­ten­tions, she said, but its mem­bers have not sat­is­fied Coun­cil’s Va­cant Prop­erty Re­view Com­mit­tee that it can do the work. 

When the church can show it has the ca­pa­city to take care of the build­ing, it could get that com­mit­tee ap­prov­al, she said. 

“The city wants a ‘one-pager,’” the coun­cil­wo­man said. “What is your plan and how do you have the fin­an­cial means to ex­ecute your plan.” 

If the church gets the ap­prov­al, the coun­cil­wo­man said, “I have to present a [City Coun­cil] res­ol­u­tion for the city to sell it.”

If all of that sounds a little more com­plic­ated than it has to be, the coun­cil­wo­man would agree. So would Eld­er Howard. In early Au­gust, he told mem­bers of the Frank­ford Civic As­so­ci­ation that he thought the church had made pro­gress in get­ting the prop­erty, but that changed a year or so ago.

The trouble is, people get dif­fer­ent an­swers from dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, and the im­pres­sion people get is that no one’s in charge, Sanc­hez said. That’s something the coun­cil­wo­man hopes will change as the city’s land bank le­gis­la­tion is im­ple­men­ted.

The land bank idea is the no­tion that va­cant prop­erty should not only be de­veloped more eas­ily, but it shouldn’t take a doc­tor­ate to fol­low the pro­ced­ures to ac­quire it either.

For his part, Howard said he be­lieves his church’s in­sur­ance policy would cov­er the Cot­tage Street build­ing once it is ac­quired. He also said he had thought that he had giv­en the city all the in­form­a­tion it re­quires. Still, he said Fri­day night, he and his mem­bers will do everything again if they have do. The church, he said, will do whatever it takes. ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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