Monica Yant Kinney: City Hall drives a couple toward ruin
Anyone who's lived in Philadelphia for more than a minute knows that unless you're rich or connected, deals with City Hall should be conducted with one eyebrow raised and both hands on your wallet.
Mayor John F. Street's much-ballyhooed Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) aimed to do right by the little guy. Vacant property would be seized by the city and turned over to decent folks. True urban pioneers would, for once, reap rewards for their troubles.
Given NTI's hype - and $296 million in bond funding, $45 million of which has yet to be spent - can you blame sculptor Andrew Jevremovic and his wife, River Algiers Trappler, for dropping their guard?
The couple purchased a half-block of misery just south of 22d Street and Washington Avenue in Point Breeze, transforming it from dump to destination. When impressed officials offered to sell the rest of the block for $1, it seemed like a just reward for sweat equity.
"We came to Point Breeze without inheritances, trust funds or gift money," Trappler wrote in one lament over the decade-long saga. "Before the city stepped in to 'help us,' we were a solvent company, two people with a very manageable mortgage and money to spare for enjoying life."
And after? Because of a bureaucratic bait-and-switch, the "free" deal cost the couple $300,000 - money they didn't have, for land they couldn't afford to lose.
A dumper's paradise
When Jevremovic and Trappler first saw the abandoned biscuit bakery on the devastated 2200 block of Alter Street in 2000, the size (15,000 square feet) and price ($20,000) were its only redeeming qualities.
"There were holes in the roof you could drop a car through," he said. "One day, I was taking pictures of the trash, and this guy pulls up in a truck. He tied a rag over his license plate to cover it up. Then he started dumping wet cement."
The couple spent $100,000 taming the urban jungle. They documented the reclamation - inside, their home, artists' studios and a gallery; outside, petunias in planters and artsy recycled wood fencing - at www.octostudio.com
The grit and drive earned admirers in City Hall. "They said, 'Would you feel better about doing all this work if we give you the rest of the block?' " Jevremovic recalled. "They said, 'It won't cost you a thing.' "
That was 2001, at the dawn of NTI. City Council President Anna C. Verna's aide, Kathleen Murray, confirmed Jevremovic's recollection and blamed a Street appointee for offering a half-block for a buck.
"It very quickly became apparent [the property sale] couldn't be done for a dollar," Murray said, adding that the NTI official "promised more than could be delivered."
The project dragged for years, with costs rising from $1 to $80,000 to $190,000. In a 2005 letter to the Redevelopment Authority, Verna noted the cruel irony: Octo's rehab of its own building raised property values on the entire block. She urged the city to transfer the remaining land to the couple for "less than fair-market value" and use NTI funds to cover the difference.
Ultimately, NTI acquired the property, but the city insisted on selling it at the newly inflated rate. "We were lied to," Jevremovic fumed. "We got ripped off."
Furious, but fearful of losing the land to speculators pushing shoddy development, the couple borrowed $200,000 from family and friends, then financed a $100,000 bare-bones renovation with credit cards.
"I understand their angst," Murray conceded. "Do I think NTI added to that? Yes. But ultimately, they still got a fine piece of property," albeit in a "gritty" area where Murray herself said she wouldn't live.
Today, Jevremovic crafts steel coffee carts for La Colombe and earns raves for designing the Kraftwork bar in Fishtown. But he hasn't made a table in ages. Doing business with the city put him "on a slow roll toward bankruptcy."
In March, the hardened couple won a $100,000 stimulus-funded "Creative Industry Workforce" grant. They posed for photos with Mayor Nutter holding a giant cardboard check.
"I called the Commerce Department today," a worried Trappler told me Monday. "We still don't have a contract or the money."
The reply? Another classic city stall. "We had a couple of hiccups which I hope will be resolved in three weeks," the official wrote. "Will keep you posted."