The latest in a series of warehouse fires in the North Philadelphia area has residents guessing which vacant building will be the next to burn.
"Every time a warehouse is empty, you know what's going to happen," said Diane Mason of Kensington as she gestured toward the smoking shell on North Front Street just below Girard Avenue. The Northern Liberties complex was engulfed by a four-alarm blaze shortly before 2:40 a.m. yesterday morning and burned into yesterday afternoon when it remained a smoldering pile of rubble.
Mason said she saw it coming. "Every time I pass by there, I say, 'one day someone is gonna set it on fire,'" she said. The former wife of a retired police officer, she was particularly enraged that the blaze had injured a firefighter, who is in stable condition after a fall. "They should take all the empty warehouses and tear them down," she said. "I don't wanna see nobody get hurt."
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Area anti-blight activist Christopher Sawyer has his eyes on a different "abandoplex" a mile north on Front near West Dauphin Street. "It's much larger and it's only a matter of time before it goes up," he said. "In the neighborhood, we call it the 'White Elephant.'"
He said that though the bottom floor of the "White Elephant" is rented out to several commercial tenants, the upper floors are missing windows and marred by graffiti tags. Its stuccoed facade is crumbling, revealing patches of red brick underneath that occasionally come loose and tumble to the ground. Like the Northern Liberties warehouse, neighbors have reported people coming and going from the property's unsealed entryways.
L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said that there were no open violations associated with the warehouse involved in yesterday's fire. "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."
Service was disrupted to the Market-Frankford line yesterday due to the proximity of the warehouse fire. Sawyer also noted the "white elephant" butts up against the tracks. "That's the building that's going to take out the el," Sawyer said.
'Homeless go in all the time'
City officials confirmed the abandoned warehouse destroyed in yesterday's fire is owned by a subsidiary of developer Bart Blatstein's Tower Investments. Property records show he purchased the site in 2003, but neighbors say he hasn't done that much with it since.
"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.
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.
Kennedy could not yet comment if there have been unsecured-entrance problems with other real estate in Blatstein's portfolio.
History behind ‘white elephant’
Like Blatstein, “white elephant” owner Daniel Waisboard has a massive real estate portfolio spread across the city.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that he was engaging in discriminatory renting in at least some of those properties
Waisboard was slapped with fines and a civil penalty after refusing to rent an apartment to a black woman, instead trying to redirect her to properties he owned in less desirable neighborhoods. An investigation found that out of hundreds of rental units in the more secure complex, 100 percent of its residents were white.