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These guys are Philadelphia's professional blight busters

Inga Saffron, ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Updated: Thursday, December 15, 2016, 3:01 AM

Jeff Goldman, left, and Joel Palmer, right, gather near the corner of 8th Street and St. Albans Street, a former VFW building that they saved and sold.

Every neighborhood seems to have one: the house with the weeds cresting the windowsills, the caved-in porch, the swirls of trash, the collage of graffiti. Residents plead with City Hall for help, and violations get issued, yet somehow, the years go by, and the trash continues to pile up.

The Willow Street steam plant has been a PCB-laden blight on the Callowhill neighborhood for almost 30 years. DAVID SWANSON
The former Chinatown YMCA had languished and become blighted after members of the governing trust passed away. After Scioli-Turco became the court-appointed conservators of the building, it was renovated and is now being prepared for sale. Inga Saffron
Photo Gallery: These guys are Philadelphia's professional blight busters

Who you gonna call? How about the "Blight busters"?

That isn’t the formal name of the group of vigilante code enforcers who have become Philadelphia’s go-to, blight-fighting consultants, but it might as well be. Operating under the more-corporate-sounding Scioli Turco Inc., they have mastered the ins and outs of an obscure state law called Act 135 that enables nonprofits to take control of blighted properties, fix them up, and sell them. The owner gets the proceeds, minus the cost of repairs and Scioli Turco’s expenses.

It sounds almost too easy, yet Scioli Turco’s successes with Act 135 promise an alternative to the usual, slow-moving approach to attacking Philadelphia’s blight problem.

Scioli Turco is the brainchild of two Bella Vista activists, Joel Palmer, a retired pharmaceutical salesman, and Jeffrey Goldman, a database analyst. Frustrated by a long-vacant VFW post in their neighborhood, they asked the courts in 2011 to appoint them as the building’s conservators under the Act 135 rules.

Using their own money and loans, they put in $100,000 to stabilize the building. After selling it for almost three times that amount, Palmer said, they realized “the process was scalable” and decided to form a nonprofit to pursue other eyesores. Searching for a name, they recalled that the VFW post had been called Scioli Turco, after two World War I vets from South Philadelphia. Palmer and Goldman simply picked up the name.

Since then, Scioli Turco has rescued 50 problem properties, not just in Bella Vista, but around the city. Most are rowhouses, but last year, Palmer and Goldman made a splash when they restored the dilapidated former Chinese cultural center on 10th Street, a historic landmark that features a classic upturned, tile roof, elaborately painted wooden brackets, and red balcony screens.

Councilman Mark Squilla was so impressed with their work that he asked the pair to tackle what might be considered the mother of all blight, the rusted, asbestos-ridden steam plant at Ninth and Willow Streets, two blocks east of the Reading Viaduct. Since it was shut down in 1989, the looming industrial relic has become a different kind of Philadelphia landmark. Its graffiti-tagged smokestacks, which are easily visible from I-676 and I-95, have somehow remained a dominant feature of the city’s landscape for three decades.

Built in 1927, the plant supplied steam heat to the industrial users that once clustered around the viaduct. The area has gradually become more residential. Callowhill has now blossomed into a hip loft district, while Chinatown has expanded right up to the plant’s perimeter. The transformation of the viaduct into an elevated park is sure to accelerate the trend.

Since its closure, the stream plant has traded hands several times, passing from Tri-Gen to Exelon to Veolia and, most recently, to Quyen V. Tran, who is listed on the deed as a Cherry Hill resident. Even though no one expects the plant to be reactivated, none of the owners has shown the slightest interest in demolishing the 16-story rust heap.

Presumably, they were waiting until the neighborhood fully revived. In the meantime, the plant’s existence poses a serious nuisance for people who live nearby. The owners have been repeatedly cited by the Department of Licenses and Inspections for code violations, ranging from trash and graffiti to more serious health concerns. While most complaints eventually get resolved, city officials acknowledge that the interior remains an asbestos nightmare. Bags of the chalky material, which was used to insulate the steam pipes, have turned to a fine dust, said Palmer. Large fissures in the plant’s brick walls are clearly visible.

Why doesn’t the city take stronger action? Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy, who previously headed the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, said he explored using the agency’s condemnation powers to acquire the property. But “given the unknown remediation costs,” he said, “we felt it was too risky” for the city to assume the liability.

Enter Scioli Turco. Unlike the redevelopment authority, Palmer said, they do not have to assume ownership -- or the legal liability that entails -- to clean up the steam plant, thanks to Act 135, introduced in 2009 by State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.).

It’s hard to believe that such a progressive law passed in a conservative state like Pennsylvania. “It’s a big deal to take someone’s property,” said Taylor’s chief of staff, Mark Collazzo. Act 135 works, he said, “because it's not eminent domain. It's not a land grab."

The first thing that Scioli Turco must do is reach out to the steam plant’s owner, who is entitled to challenge the takeover. So far, Palmer said, Tran has not responded. Even if he doesn't reply, the next step will be a court hearing where Scioli Turco will have to justify why making them conservators serves the public interest. If Tran objects, he will have to come up with a credible blight-remediation plan and prove to a judge that progress is being made.

For all of Scioli Turco’s previous success, ridding Philadelphia of this rusted mountain is a bigger and riskier undertaking than anything they’ve attempted. With Squilla’s help, they have started discussions with the Wolf administration about obtaining state loans and grants to remove contaminants from the plant. If they don't get the funds, the venture's chances of success are much slimmer.

Until they are appointed conservators, they won’t know how big a job the cleanup will be, but Palmer believes it could exceed a million dollars. His attorney, Gaetano Piccirilli, says the steam plant will be the largest Act 135 filing since Taylor’s law was adopted.

Once a blighted building is sold, and any outstanding taxes are paid, the proceeds are divided between the owner and Scioli Turco. Those profits are plowed into the next project. Neither Palmer nor Goldman take a salary, although Palmer joked, “I’d like to some day.”

Filing an Act 135 request is something anyone can do, Palmer said. But it does take time, persistence, and a tolerance for reading legal documents to complete the process. Scioli Turco's work has already inspired other blight busters. Attorney Michael P. McIlhinney is helping Rittenhouse Square residents use Act 135 to take on a notorious house at 18th and Delancey. The owner of the site, a wreck for two decades, has evaded building inspectors by doing just enough work to avoid condemnation.

It could turn out that the best way to fight blight is to empower residents to take matters into their own hands.

Inga Saffron, ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

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