One firefighter was injured in a blaze early this morning at a Northern Liberties warehouse owned by Liberty Homes Philadelphia Inc., a subsidiary of Bart Blatstein's Tower Investments, according to city tax records.
Fire Marshal Joseph Comas said a 911 came in reporting flames at the vacant warehouse, located on North Front Street just south of Girard Avenue, shortly before 2:40 a.m. Responding fire companies found the building fully engulfed. It was quickly called to four alarms and brought under control around 4:15 a.m., though patches of flames and billowing smoke could still be seen this afternoon.
One firefighter was injured on the scene and is in stable condition at Hahnemann Hospital, Comas said. The fire's cause is still under investigation.
The building butted up against the tracks of SEPTA's Market-Frankford line, disrupting service in the area. SEPTA is still running shuttle buses between its Huntingdon and Spring Garden stations, said transit police Capt. Steven Harold. Though investigators found there was no structural damage to the tracks, they were waiting for a specialized piece of equipment to knock down one of the warehouse's still-standing walls to make sure there was no risk of it collapsing onto the el.
Harold said that service should be restored by the evening rush hour. "The Philadelphia Fire Department is in tune with transit rush hour schedules," Harold said. "They just have to make sure the building doesn't collapse onto the tracks and street."
A for-lease sign bearing the name of Tower Investments could be seen among charred rubble on the sidewalk in front of the shell this morning. Neighbors said the notice went up recently.
"It'll be all new homes soon,"said John Quinlan, who grew up in the area and recently moved back from New Jersey due to the neighborhood's ongoing revitalization. He said the demolition of the building prompted by the fire was for the best. "I think it needed to be knocked down. They're building new homes," he said. "As developers build, people are moving into every little inch."
But other neighbors told the same old story of neglect and blight. "One woman who has been living here for five years was saying the other day that homeless people go in there all the time," said Mary Ruddy, who just moved into a house across the street from the property. "I'm not that surprised."
"Every time a warehouse is empty, you know what's going to happen," Diane Mason said, noting that it was the third such area fire in recent months. "Every time I pass by there, I say, 'one day someone is gonna set it on fire.'"
Area activist Christopher Sawyer said that he recently observed from the adjacent Girard Station that new graffiti tags were being spray painted on the building's upper levels weekly and the building had been missing a roof for months.
"If the city did something about abandoned buildings, we'd be okay," Mason said. "But they're not."
But Ruddy had a different take. "The city doesn't have any money," she
said. "What can they do? I think more neighborhood associations would
help. ... I think it's up to the people to stand up and care about their
neighborhoods and give the city a break while they deal with all the
L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said the city has received no reports of the warehouse being unsealed and there were no open violations associated with the address. "If people feel that they see squatters or activity happening, they should immediately contact 311 and 911," she said. "Every property we have reported to us as unsealed we take steps to seal."
According to Kennedy, keeping properties sealed and safe is mainly the burden of their owners. "They're really the responsible party and only in the case of absolute owner neglect that creates a public safety hazard does the city have to step in," she said.
She said in instances where abatement action is needed, such as sealing or demolition, the city first tries to track down a building's owner and hold them accountable. If that fails, a lien is put on the property, with the owner responsible for the debt, and the building can ultimately be taken to sheriff's sale.
Kennedy confirmed that Blatstein is the CEO of the company responsible for the abandoned warehouse, but could not yet comment if there have been unsecured-entrance problems with other real estate in the mega-developer's portfolio. "I'm going through and trying to collect his holdings now," she said. "As you can imagine, they are extensive."