NO DUMPING! An Investigative Report on Illegal Dumping in the Kensington “Mega Lots”
Monday, April 9, 2012 is a date many people awake during the early morning hours in Kensington will remember. I was beginning my day at 3AM about a mile away from the vacant Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building, which at one point encompassed an entire city block at York and Jasper Streets, just off Kensington Avenue.
Two things were odd to me that day as I descended my stairs, rubbed my eyes, and realized that I had to drive to Hoboken and work up there for a few days. The first thing I noticed was that the rat that had been terrorizing my kitchen was dead, finally falling victim to a well-placed trap. The second thing I noticed was outside my house: I could hear an apocalyptic amount of sirens coming from every direction of the city, getting louder and louder as they approached a blazing fire nearby.
Living this close to Kensington makes you less aware of police sirens and the occasional low flying chopper spotlighting the streets below. This clamor, however, was so loud and something I wasn’t used to hearing. By then it was nearly 4AM and I was late, so out the door I went. It wasn’t until later that I learned what had happened.
According to NBC10, the five-alarm fire broke out around 3:30AM at 1817 York Street in the enormous building that had been vacant for many years. According to philly.com, an 81 unit apartment building had at one point been proposed for the site, but never came to fruition. So the building remained empty, becoming a hazardous eyesore that attracted vagrants, drug users and, apparently, enormous fires.
Tragically, Lt. Robert P. Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney were killed fighting the fire. Neary, a 37 year veteran of the PFD, had recently began filing papers to retire in the next four years.
According to philly.com, the owners of the building that caught fire were, at the time, Michael, Nahman and Yechiel Lichtenstein, Brooklyn-based property holders who owned 34 properties throughout Philadelphia. The article portrays the owners as neglectful and quotes then-L&I Commissioner Fran Burns saying, “I don’t understand, when you have a zoning permit for an 81-unit development, how you don’t understand your responsibility to have a secure property.”
The lot was cleared of debris and most of the remnants from the fire are long gone. Spirit News was able to find an image dating from August 2014 of the site: There is no trash, no bricks and no tires. The grass is green and it looks like it’s ready for some neighborhood kids to get together and play some baseball there. Unfortunately, the land where two firefighters gave their lives to protect has since fallen back into disarray. It isn’t being protected by anyone and has become a haven for scofflaws and vagrants.
Back in February, Spirit News was contacted by a tipster who claimed there was a high level of illegal dumping occurring at the lot bounded by York Street, Boston Street, Jasper Street and behind the stores that face Kensington Ave. He believed recent water department activity led to some debris being dumped at the lot. Shortly after receiving this tip, we sent reporters out to see the lot for ourselves and investigate.
We found the once-grass covered lot was filled with large piles of bricks, concrete and dirt. It appeared someone had taken all the furnishings and items of an entire house and dumped them right along the Boston Street side of the lot. Tires and trash bags were piled up along York Street and wet mattresses were left to rot away in the elements. Paths were carved through the massive piles of bathroom tiles and drywall and led you on the sloppiest muddy path to a concealed area where evidence of a campfire was present.
This lot is actually part of a much larger area comprised of several other abandoned lots in various stages of redevelopment. This section of Kensington is known locally as “The Mega Lot” and it’s commonly known to residents and dumpers as a place where they most likely won’t be caught dumping garbage illegally.
While this particular portion of the “Mega Lot” seems to have been deemed the lot to dump heavy debris, the surrounding lots were covered in trash and litter. Evidence of makeshift campsites and sleeping areas led us to believe that at least one person had been living in one of the nearby lots.
We returned again a couple weeks later only to find the situation had not changed: The debris was still piled high. As we exited the El at the York-Dauphin Station, a man was pushing a shopping cart with multiple car tires in it. The man began to throw the tires into the lot along York Street, despite making eye contact with our reporter who was pointing his camera right at him. The dumper was unfazed, as he turned around and walked back toward Kensington Ave.
Comly Auctioneers and Appraisers is located along Boston Street, adjacent to the lot. According to Helen Minnucci, manager of Comly, there were problems with the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building before the fire.
“Before it even caught fire, us along with tons of neighbors complained about [the building] because there was no windows,” Minnucci said. “We watched people go in and out of the building all day and night long.”
According to Minnucci, Comly was forced to vacate their building for nearly three years following the fire and only returned in the past year. Minnucci believes the vacant lot is a blight on the neighborhood. “People just go to the bathroom over there,” she said. “We have to sit at our desk, see people pulling down their pants and going to the bathroom over there. It’s just horrible.”
Minnucci claims she contacted 311 in August 2015, but in an emailed response was told that the city doesn’t clean up construction debris and there was nothing they could do. Minnucci says the response also stated a “high level” meeting between 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, L&I and the Streets Department was scheduled where they would figure out how to amend the problem. According to Minnucci, she hadn’t seen any progress yet. “We’ve contacted everybody and still nothing is done,” Minnucci said.
Meanwhile the dumping continues and the dumpers seem to be fearless. “At the same time everyday, this red pick up truck would pull up… they must take their license plate off, there’s no writing, and they are constantly dumping,” Minnucci said. “I think it’s just a mix of a lot of people — just, like, little contractors in the area and bigger sites.”
Minnucci blames the property owner for the fire and their ongoing failure to secure the property. “Two firefighters were killed because of his neglect and now look at what we have to look at,” Minnucci said.
Spirit News recently caught up with Brita Wisler, the sister of Lt. Neary, at a tribute for her brother following the Mayfair 5K. We told her that the lot had once again fallen into disarray.
“I think L&I needs to step it up again,” Wisler said. “It was one of those things where there was a lot that was neglected there. That neighborhood has a lot of potential.”
According to documents obtained by Spirit News, the lot is owned by York Street Property Development. That company is registered to Walder & Zaslow, PC, a law firm whose office is in the Oxford Valley Mall. We were unable to reach the owners for comment.
On June 23, Spirit News spoke with Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez by phone. She described the current situation with the owners of the lot.
“It’s been a little bit complicated,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
The councilwoman confirmed that there was activity in the area by city agencies resulting in debris being left on the lot where the two firefighters died.
“At one point the Water Department and PGW were doing some work nearby around the street, so there was some dirt that was placed on the lot at one point,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
The councilwoman did say that the practice of city agencies using lots like this was uncommon, but she confirmed that debris from recent street work had been “placed” there. Quiñones-Sánchez also said she believed it had had been cleaned up.
“Our understanding when we contacted the utilities was that once they finished the work, whatever was theirs would be removed,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
According to Quiñones-Sánchez, the Streets Department has come by on a weekly basis to clean up the household trash that accumulates at the lot, but claims the construction debris is costly to remove. “We have a lot of small contractor dumping. We’re spending a couple thousand dollars a month just to keep on top of it,” she said.
“This whole issue of small contractor dumping situation is a problem in lots of parts of my district,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “Just last week we were tracking one particular dumping site and ended up confiscating the truck of a Philly contractor that was dumping.”
According to the councilwoman, one of the biggest problems is that penalties for illegal dumping are not high enough — it’s essentially cheaper to take the chance and dump illegally. She wants to increase funding to CLIP, which actively cleans the household debris from the lot. She also wants to increase the amount of cameras in the area to track people coming from outside Kensington to dump. “Most of the dumping is from folks outside of the area,” Quiñones-Sánchez
The councilwoman, who according to the City of Philadelphia’s Open Data website makes an annual salary of $129,373, claims the city can’t afford to take the responsibility to put up a temporary fence.
“It’s a cost issue. With that huge lot like that, [a fence] will be quite expensive on a monthly basis,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
She also points out that a temporary metal fence would most likely be a target for thieves in the area. She says the minimal penalties give little recourse the city can take to punish negligent landowners in her district.
“We spend quite a bit of money as a city tracking all these bad actors,” she said, “and it becomes very expensive because some of the stuff gets reimbursed and some of the stuff doesn’t.”
Quiñones-Sánchez also says that penalties and fines on the owner of the York Street lot are impeding progress at the lot. “In that particular case, you have a property that already has significant amounts of liens already placed on it. Every project proposal that’s been viewed in that place… one of the reasons the number doesn’t work is the person who owns the site still wants to make money” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “It’s not like he’s willing to walk away and say this was a bad investment, let me recoup some of it, no, he still wants to make money.”
The councilwoman also blames the previous administration for not empowering the city to go after negligent property owners. “The previous administration was very reluctant around looking at forcing folks to have a bond where we could go do some work and get reimbursed,” Quiñones-Sánchez. “Unless we have a lien authority based on the value of the property, it’s really hard for us to compel a bad actor to do the right thing.”
Spirit News visited the lot one more time on June 26. It appeared that some progress was being made: Most of the trash was cleared since our last visit and the rubble and construction debris were piled into one massive hill of bricks and concrete still covering two-thirds of the lot.
Spirit News spoke with Dan Comly of Comly Auctioneers and Appraisers, who told us that he had in fact spoken to a representative from the lot’s owner. That representative told Comly the lot was going to be leased to a construction company and that cleaning and securing the lot was their priority.
However, according to Comly, the process has been slow and the lack of a fence is allowing people to access the lot. Even if the lot was secured, piles of black trash bags still litter the sidewalk outside the lot and a man slept soundly on the sidewalk along Boston Street.
A makeshift memorial remains with two placards bearing the fallen firefighters names. It’s a solemn reminder that two men didn’t give their lives so that careless contractors and city agencies could use this ground as a dumping site. It will most likely continue until the lot and surrounding area are secured.
Spirit News will follow any updates on this story. Bob Stewart and Max Pulcini contributed to this report.