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Philly developer ticks off city by cleaning up lot
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — There's a lot of trouble brewing next to a coffee house in a fast-developing neighborhood.

Ori Feibush, a real estate developer, has turned a trash-strewn city-owned lot — vacant for roughly 30 years — into a welcoming spot for customers of his month-old corner cafe, where they can enjoy their fair-trade organic java and pastries from local bakeries.

It may sound like a win-win, but the now-sparkling urban respite has angered city officials. They say Feibush shouldn't have done work on a lot he doesn't own or rent, shouldn't be using taxpayer-owned property to benefit his business and should have played by the rules.

Feibush said the city has rebuffed his overtures to buy the 20-by-100-foot lot in Point Breeze, a rowhouse neighborhood southwest of downtown Philadelphia where he has lived since 2006. So he said he spent at least $20,000 to remove 40 tons of trash and to add planters, tables and landscaping to it.

"This property was in disrepair for years, decades, and the city did absolutely nothing," he said after happening upon a Friday afternoon news conference being held by city officials. "I'm going to continue to make every effort to purchase the property."

Feibush set up a new blog Friday called and posted photos, emails, text messages and documents dating back more than a year that he said prove he contacted officials repeatedly about the lot.

Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority head Ed Covington said the agency had no record of those inquiries and added that Feibush cleared the space after being ordered by the city to cease work.

"Mr. Feibush himself purchased three publicly owned properties earlier this year, so he knows how the process works," authority spokesman Paul Chrystie said.

Besides Feibush, three others have expressed interest in buying the lot, which is worth more than $50,000.

A bidding process will begin for interested buyers "in the coming weeks" and in the meantime, the city would allow the lot to remain as is, Covington said.

"We are not going to take any further action with this property other than make it available for sale," he said.

Business owners in similar situations pay the city rent to use lots next to their properties, but Feibush is essentially using public property to benefit his business at taxpayers' expense, Chrystie said.

"It is not fair to either the taxpayers or the potential buyers who have played by the rules for Mr. Feibush to attempt to acquire the lot simply by occupying it," he said.

A group of nearly a dozen longtime residents stood with Feibush on Friday and applauded his efforts.

"He took a blighted situation with trees and trash and people leaving all kinds of garbage and made it into something presentable," Ernest Ligons said. "How can you argue with that?"

Commenters on Facebook and local websites also were generally supportive of Feibush's efforts, but some acknowledged the city's concerns were valid, even if it took a wrongheaded approach. Last weekend, a group of neighbors held an event at the coffee shop to celebrate what they described on Facebook as "a thriving, safe community space."

Development has been fraught with tension in recent years in Point Breeze, where a flurry of new homes continue rising on vacant lots and dilapidated buildings are being gutted and rehabbed. The changes have pitted some longtime residents fearing gentrification and higher property taxes against new neighbors whose pricey houses are raising property values.

Feibush, whose OCF Realty has built more than 150 homes in the neighborhood, has himself become a polarizing figure to some. But neighbors visiting the cleared lot Friday praised his efforts.

"I understand he intruded on a property they claim was not his to intrude on but ... as a neighbor, as a homeowner in this neighborhood, I applaud what he's doing," Ligons said.