Might L&I indifference burn down a beloved 120-year old firehouse?

Might L&I indifference burn down a beloved 120-year old firehouse?
Hillary Petrozziello

The crenellated tower of the Engine 46 firehouse stands like a beacon tucked between I-95 and Columbus Avenue in Pennsport. The Flemish Revival firehouse, built in 1894 and still appearing to be in fine shape, appears to have lost its chance for landmarking as the Philadelphia’s Dept. of Licensing and Inspections keeps open a demolition permit in an apparent violation of city rules.

Nearly two years after Cedar Realty Trust and its CEO, Bruce Schanzer, won a demolition permit, the former firehouse is still empty even though the rules under which it was issued say that if work is suspended for 180 days or more, the permit expires.

L&I’s Director of Development, Elizabeth Baldwin, says the demo work has been “progressing slowly in the interior,” and says the department has “no evidence that it has been inactive for six months.”

Baldwin says that even the smallest amount of work would satisfy L&I’s requirement that any destruction be continuous for the permit to remain valid. Under the state Uniform Construction Code, demo permits are limited to five years.

The zombie permit has left preservationists angered. While an approved demolition permit is in place, rules prevent the firehouse from being placed on Philadelphia’s Register of Historic Places.

Benjamin Leech, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, says he hopes that simply by dint of the fact that the castle-like structure still stands, Cedar Realty is still attempting to sell or lease the old firehouse. But he doesn’t know for sure. “We’ve tried to contact them,” he said. “They haven’t gotten back to us.”

Metro’s calls to Cedar Realty Trust for comment went unanswered.

“We don’t know if they think we’re hostile – we’re certainly not. We’d do whatever we can to help them,” Leech said.

The building has sat unoccupied since 2006, when a steakhouse there closed.

On Cedar Realty’s website, a flyer for Riverview Plaza, describes Engine 46 as an available property, number 6 on the accompanying plans, with a lot size of 1,053 sqft. The only photos of Riverview are of the movie theater and its parking lot. There are no pictures of the iconic turret or the rich red brick, and no prices are listed on the page.

The best hope for preserving the firehouse intact is to see it recycled as a new restaurant or bar. Next door, Warmdaddy’s has been serving soul food for the last eight years, and the Industry and Moonshine have opened up just blocks away in recent years.

Cedar Realty has maintained the property and paid its taxes in full, leaving preservationists with little leverage. As long as the city continues to reissue the demolition permit, there’s not much that can be done to preserve the firehouse, says Leech, beyond “political pressure and public opinion.” Cedar Realty hasmaintained the property and paid its taxes in full. “In terms of pure leverage, therereally isn’t much.”

Despite Philadelphia’s fetishism of the past, thecity has too often relegated oldarchitectural beauties to the slaughter bench ofhistory as we march in line with thelatest developer zeitgeist. The ghosts of lost buildingshaunt the city in the form of soullessPenn Center, thoughtless public housing towers andnon-descript strip malls, allerected on the ruins of masonry masterworks builtback when Philadelphia was theWorkshop of the World, replete with robber baronsand titans of industry who triedto one up one another. Today, we risk letting a sad history repeat itself, of allowing a lack of creativity starve futuregenerations of a glimpse of our more glorious past.

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