A FEW MONTHS ago we told you the strange story of some Fishtown folks who had fenced off the sidewalk adjacent to their property, essentially making the sidewalk part of their side yard. The sidewalk had been fenced off for years, neighbors said, and it still is. The neighbors were upset, and wondered how someone could take control of what they thought was public property.
It turns out that this particular sidewalk isn't public property. The city turned the street that it's on, East Hewson Street, into private property years ago. Yes, the city can give a street to private property owners. It has done so many times.
The Streets Department originally told us that the property owners didn't have a permit to block the sidewalk, and issued them a violation. But when we followed up recently, spokeswoman Keisha McCarty-Skelton said that the street was actually private property, and if residents want to annex the sidewalk, they can. The violation has been pulled.
Streets that have been made private property, or "closed," are divided down the middle and belong to the adjacent property owners. Usually, due to infrastructure that is under the street, the city doesn't allow residents to build over a street, even if they own it. This is the only thing that makes the legality of the fence questionable, said McCarty-Skelton, and the Water Department is currently looking into it.
East Hewson Street hasn't been public since the '60s. In 1963, City Council adopted an ordinance making the street private. City Planning Commission meeting minutes from that year say that that portion of Hewson Street was "not needed."
It's not clear why. But the Commission approved the plan to close the portion of Hewson Street southeast of Gaul Street, and it has been private property ever since.
When asked why the Streets Department didn't realize this upon first inspection of the fence, McCarty-Skelton said that the inspectors did not do background research on the street itself.
One of the property owners we spoke to dismissed neighbors' complaints as "gossip" and said that this matter was no one's business but his own.
WAIT: CAN I MAKE MY STREET PRIVATE? It's not that easy, said Gary Jastrzab, Planning Commission executive director. The commission gets about 20 such proposals a year - usually for smaller or less-traveled streets. For example, Jastrzab said that the city wouldn't close the Parkway or Market Street East.
That's why he was surprised that East Hewson Street was closed. "It does look like an open, fully functioning street," he said.
Streets can be permanently closed for a number of reasons. Back in the '60s, the University of Pennsylvania got Locust Street closed to become Locust Walk, a plaza running through its campus. Industrial property owners can get a street closed for security reasons. More recently, a Northern Liberties restaurant owner, with the help of former Councilman Frank DiCicco, tried (and failed) to get a stretch of Bodine Street closed so that he could extend his bar.
WHAT ABOUT THE NEIGHBORS? There's not a lot that unhappy Hewson Street neighbors can do. The city could buy back the street at market value, but city planner Sarah Chiu said that that's not easy. The neighbors would first need to get their Councilman (Darrell Clarke) to introduce an ordinance proposing that the city open the street back up.
Even if neighbors get that far, Chiu said, making the street public again involves speaking to all the people who have rights to the street.