Councilman offers $2,500 reward in Point Breeze arson

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents Point Breeze, has offered a $2,500 reward for anyone who comes forward with information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Monday's arson. 

The reward is in addition to the $10,000 already offered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)

"Councilman Johnson will increase that reward amount by $2,500 as a stand in solidarity with the community against the arson," his office said in a statement Tuesday evening. The money will be coming from the councilman's campaign fund, a spokeswoman said. 

 The raging two-alarm fire that destroyed four large townhouses under construction and damaged five more Monday morning in Point Breeze was set, officials said Tuesday.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Philadelphia Field Division announced Tuesday that Monday’s fire at 20th and Wharton Streets was arson and that it is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible.

The fire was reported about 4:15 a.m. and quickly engulfed the development in flames. It took about 75 firefighters about an hour to bring the fire under control. No injuries were reported.

On Monday,  developer Ori Feibush said construction crews were scheduled to break ground on the second phase of the project-- 11 townhouses facing Woodstock Street, off Wharton. The total project is expected to contain 22 three-bedroom, four-bathroom townhouses listed at $550,000 to $625,000.

"Yesterday was a tough day, and in response we will work even harder to show our commitment to development," Feibush said, adding that he expected to begin construction of the destroyed homes plus the new row of 11 by Friday. "We're not going anywhere."

For years, Feibush has been a controversial figure in Point Breeze as a result of the market-rate homes he has been building. He has been accused of driving out long-term residents by gentrifying the area. He and his company, OCF Realty, have been subject to vandalism and harassment.

Just two weeks ago, fliers were posted around Point Breeze titled “Gentrification is modern day Colonialism” that read in part: "OCF REALTY, is displacing the BLACK and BROWN people in the POINT-BREEZE and surrounding communities." And: "Don't be pushed out!! Stand up!! Fight back!!"

On Tuesday, Feibush said that he did not think the fire was an isolated incident but was a continuation of other vandalism. He and his associates "believe there is a connection to previous instances of vandalism against our office and development projects as well as Monday's vandalism in South Kensington." (South Kensington is a name sometimes used for the North Philadelphia neighborhood where anti-gentrification vandals went on a rampage Monday night.) 

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson condemned the arson.

"Vandalism of businesses and homes is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated," he said in a statement. "Justice should be swift and severe for the many lives that were put in danger in the Point Breeze neighborhood. This criminal activity damaged multiple properties, recklessly endangered the lives of emergency personnel, and could have sent an entire neighborhood block up in flames."

Police have not said whether Monday's Point Breeze fire and the vandalism in North Philadelphia, which caused at least $100,000 in damage to new buildings and high-end vehicles in an apparent protest against gentrification, are related. 

ATF officials will be looking through video surveillance in the area, special agent Sarah O’Reilly said.  They will also be sending debris evidence to be examined.

Anyone with information is asked to call the ATF 24/7 hotline at 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888-283-3473), email ATFTips@atf.gov, or submit a tip by using the ReportIt app on a mobile phone.