Philadelphia Daily News: University City program gives new life to shuttered buildings

Monday, November 25, 2013

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WHEN PANSY CLARKE bought two five-story fixer-uppers in West Philadelphia several years ago, the registered nurse planned to convert them to an assisted-living facility. But those plans, like the dilapidated properties, soon began to crumble.

Clarke had gotten a sizable blanket mortgage for another property she owned in Delaware County, which blocked her from taking out more funds to fix up the Chestnut Street properties. As a result, the buildings sat empty, causing a huge eyesore on an otherwise rising block just a stone's throw from the old West Philly High.

Enter Ryan Spak, Mr. Fix-It himself. Spak runs an initiative by University City District called Project Rehab, started in 2011 to identify derelict properties in the area, track down the owners and help them fix up their shabby buildings or get them to market.

After sending several letters, Spak finally got in touch with Clarke. He was able to convince her, after a few meetings, that something needed to be done. Clarke decided to sell, and Spak helped her find real-estate agents and to restructure her blanket mortgage to avoid a short sale. A fire in the properties brought up a new set of hurdles, but Spak helped to convince the city to postpone the demolition to allow for the sale.

City taxpayers saved thousands in demolition costs. The city recouped back taxes and liens, and received transfer tax from the sale. And the properties are now being converted to 18 residential units and a commercial space.

That is just one example of the program's success. In two years, 21 properties have been rehabbed. Fifteen of those were sold, while six were retained by the owners. UCD said that it has resulted in $4.3 million of financing and added another $13 million in estimated value to the area by eliminating the blight.

"Lord knows what would have happened to the property" without the program, said Clarke, 67, of Cherry Hill. "I probably would end up with a lot of lawsuits from the city, with various fines that I could not afford to pay, and probably would have ended up losing the buildings to the city if I had not met [Ryan] when I did."

Even more impressive is that the program's only costs are a part-time salary for Spak - who acts as an investigator, negotiator and hand-holder - and mailing costs for certified letters to the absentee owners.

"Trying to figure out the ways to maneuver a project is like standing in line for a new pair of sneakers - that's what gets me going every day," said Spak, 33, who has worked as a licensed real-estate agent and in other aspects of real estate, handling the finances and construction management.

"If we resolve that one vacant property and made that block whole, we've brought that block back to what it was supposed to be," he continued. "If we've done that to 21, we've succeeded."

Not surprisingly, community leaders like Barry Grossbach are thankful for what the program has accomplished.

"We've had some properties that now are assets on the block and inhabitable, and people actually living in what were derelict and falling apart and depressing everyone and everything around them," said Grossbach, zoning chairman of the Spruce Hill Community Association, who also represents the community on UCD's board. "Some are more difficult than others and they require a lot of leg work, persuasion . . . Ryan has been working to bring a property from start to finish."