Kensington property owner: ‘you’re taking away my future’

Meletios Anthanasiadis (left), has lost seven properties in East Kensington via eminent domain; Arab American Community Development Corporation’s Marwan Kreidie (right), says a housing development project is needed there. SAM NEWHOUSE / STAR PHOTO

One East Kensington businessman is among those who own property recently seized by the city through through eminent domain, a legal yet seemingly controversial government power. Now, he’s central to a conversation about city residents’ rights and the rights of the city itself, not to mention blight elimination in the neighborhood.

Kensington business owner Meletios, “Mel” Anthanasiadis said the city is literally taking away his retirement plan.

And now, he said, he’s saving up for legal representation.

In a move that’s stirred controversy within the past week, the city of Philadelphia recently utilized the power of eminent domain to acquire several properties in Kensington for an affordable housing development, and Anthanasiadis has made it clear he is none too pleased.

Neither are neighbors all over the River Wards, if online chatter about the story is any indication.

Government and development representatives, however, uphold the land grab as a step toward what’s best for the land and the community.

“This is a good example of eminent domain doing what it’s supposed to do,” said Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Arab American Community Development Corporation (AACDC), which, along with Conifer Realty LLC, proposed a 45-unit affordable housing and commercial development for the area in September. “The question is, what is the best use of this land?”

The use of eminent domain allows governments to acquire private property for “public use,” such as the building of a telephone pole or road, the removal of blight, or general economic development. It’s tough, though, under state law, for property owners to fight eminent domain, a government right.

The development is planned to be erected on the block bordered by Jefferson, Bodine, Oxford and Cadwallader streets, which comprises many vacant and overgrown lots, several of which already belong to the city. Five occupied homes on the block are not being taken for this development.

But Anthanasiadis, who is the landlord of about 20 area properties, accused the city of legal theft. Seven of his properties — garages he said are currently rented — are being taken from him, two of which he said are active auto shops.

“You’re taking my future, my kid’s future,” Anthanasiadis told Star in front of his pizza shop, El Grego Pizza and Luncheonette, at 1500 N. 2nd St. “And I can’t do nothing, because it’s legal.”

Anthanasiadis told Philadelphia City Paper he purchased the properties to rent them to tenants until he could afford to develop on them. It was, he said, a “retirement plan.”

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) is offering payment to owners of private properties on the block, but Anthanasiadis said for seven properties he is being offered $80,000 to $90,000, “Not even one-seventh of what I’d make in the open market,” he said.

The housing project is named “Tajdeed,” which means “renewal” in Arabic, and was selected through a competitive process, according to PRA spokesman Paul Chrystie.

“Tajdeed was submitted to OHCD [Office of Housing and Community Development] in September 2012 in response to an RFP [request or proposals] for affordable rental housing developments,” Chrystie said in an email. “There are a number of designated Urban Renewal Areas where, when an appropriate reuse is identified and funding is available, the city may utilize eminent domain to advance community revitalization.”

Representatives of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, which represents the area closest to the development, declined to comment on the development.

But many neighbors have expressed anger or disbelief over the use of eminent domain.

“I’m a friend of Mel’s, and it’s a shame that they’re taking his properties,” Dave Benson, a resident who lives near the project, told Star.

Neighborhood concerns related to the project will be addressed in the near future, according to councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez (D-7th dist.). She said she soon would sit down with the AACDC to hold community meetings for neighbors, and added that she has already spoken with every property owner on the block.

“This is part of several different affordable and transformational projects there [in that area],” Quiñones-Sanchez said, citing plans for a residential development at the Umbrella Factory at 5th and Jefferson streets, and for Benson Park, at Lawrence and Master streets.

But she said plans for this sort of urban renewal in the area date back 10 years.

“People are being disingenuous,” she said. “They’re not surprised.”

This will be the first housing project for the AACDC, which was founded in 1997 and is a secular non-profit organization that rents office space inside the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, a mosque that directly neighbors the block in question.

Kreidie said the AACDC and Al-Aqsa share at least one board member, but are not involved in each other’s affairs.

Rental units in the housing development will not be discriminatory in any way, Kreidie added. Five units would be set aside for low-income households.

The final development will be designed by architect Tim McDonald, with Arabic arches and tiles incorporated in the design, and net-zero energy standards which would utilize green technology so that residents don’t have to pay for electricity.

Kreidie estimated $14 million as the budget for the development. The total government subsidy is about $1.8 million, and the project is also expected to receive tax credits granted to the AACDC from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Among Anthanasiadis’ complaints was that he received letters that his properties were being considered for condemnation that were postmarked after the dates on subsequent letters that title had been transferred to the PRA.

“PRA seeks to be thorough and comprehensive in providing notice to property owners, and in the case of Mr. Anthanasiadis, letters were sent to both the property addresses and the 2nd St. pizzeria,” Chrystie said.

Additionally, letters in manila envelopes were posted on plywood sticks in front of every individual property on the block. Many letters remained untouched last week, including five addressed to the City of Philadelphia, which already owned several properties on the block.

Those in support of Athanasiadis joined him Saturday outside his property at 1529 Cadwallader St. That address is one of the auto shops, Northern Liberties Auto Repair. City Paper also reported that the business will get relocation assistance.

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.