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South Philly neighborhood upended by longtime resident’s apparent land grab as property values soar

In Philadelphia communities such as Grays Ferry, land that was once hard to even give away has become valuable enough, it seems, to outweigh the enmity of longtime neighbors.

Parking stalls used by residents of adjoining homes on the 1400 block of South Dover Street in Grays Ferry.
Parking stalls used by residents of adjoining homes on the 1400 block of South Dover Street in Grays Ferry.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The 1990s ended happily for dozens of South Philadelphia homeowners, who won a long-sought prize from the city: ownership of the lots along the vacant street behind their rowhouses to use as private parking.

When a portion of the lots on the 1400 block of South Dover Street in Grays Ferry went unclaimed, a new community group was named to acquire and maintain the stray properties.

Now, the nominal leader of that group, Mark Meighan, is documented in city records as having taken ownership of those orphaned parcels for himself, sowing anger among members of his tight-knit community and reportedly drawing the attention of prosecutors.

The strife on Dover Street reflects a community upended by rapid change, as land that was hard to even give away less than a generation ago has become valuable enough to stir up enmity among longtime neighbors.

“A lot of neighbors are upset,” said the Rev. Douglas McKay, a lifelong Grays Ferry resident who runs the Our House Ministries church and addiction-support center from his home office a few doors south of Meighan’s house on South 29th Street. “It’s hard to believe.”

Meighan, 59, a retired treatment-plant manager with the Water Department, referred a request for comment to his lawyer, John D’Intino Jr.

“It’s my understanding that everything was properly filed with the City of Philadelphia,” D’Intino said. “We’re investigating the situation."

The story begins in 1969, when the Redevelopment Authority announced plans to raze about 1,000 blighted homes that had been left behind as the city’s depopulation accelerated.

Among them were the mostly abandoned rowhouses on the 1400 block of South Dover, which runs parallel to the east to South 29th Street between Reed and Dickinson Streets.

By the 1970s, both sides of the block had been leveled and covered with asphalt, providing convenient parking for neighbors whose back doors opened onto Dover from 29th and from Newkirk Street to the east.

Many of those neighbors were soon clamoring to buy the properties outright, but it took until 1997 for the Redevelopment Authority to formally acquire them all for resale.

Once the authority had the entire block on its books, it offered to sell the 29th Street and Newkirk Street homeowners their adjoining lots for $1 each, although the residents would be required to pay $1,000 to fence the parcels, The Inquirer reported at the time.

When eight homeowners turned down the authority’s proposal, the all-or-nothing offer was imperiled.

“At the time, residential development in the city — in many of its neighborhoods — had been dormant for decades,” said Noel Eisenstat, who oversaw the Dover Street property transfers as the Redevelopment Authority’s executive director at the time. “Land had very little value.”

Rather than let the deal slip away, a group of Newkirk and 29th Streets neighbors formed an association to take the unclaimed lots off the city’s hands.

The Guenther Street Civic Association, as it was called to memorialize the street’s former name, had two leaders who signed documents recording the transaction with the city.

One was William Shea, of the family that had owned and operated the Shea Funeral Home across 29th Street from St. Gabriel Catholic Church at Dickinson Street for a century. Shea had privately acquired five Dover lots from the city, one behind the funeral home and four for each of the adjacent rowhouses he owned.

The other signatory was Meighan, a tall, boisterous man known among neighbors for the long hours he pulled at the Water Department and his devotion to his disabled son.

Over the years, the Guenther Street group rented some of the parking spaces to other Grays Ferry neighbors to cover property taxes and other expenses, with Shea serving as treasurer until he left the neighborhood for Newtown Square in 2014.

McKay bought Shea’s funeral home and rowhouses — along with the accompanying Dover parking spaces — for use as a chapel and housing for recovering addicts.

Guenther Street treasurer duties, meanwhile, fell to another neighbor until 2016, when Meighan took over the group’s finances, according to a community member who asked not to be identified, citing neighborhood tensions.

Management of the lots seemingly continued as before, although one of the properties was sold in the interim to the newly arrived owner of an adjoining house on Newkirk.

Then, in the autumn of 2017, the neighbor who served until 2016 as treasurer — and whose address was still on file with the city as the Guenther Street group’s official contact — received notices that the seven remaining association-owned properties had changed hands.

Meighan, records show, had sold the seven properties to himself for $1 each that September as the group’s president. Those lots together could be worth upward of $300,000, judging by other recent sales on the block.

Lawyer Itzchak Kornfeld, a Mount Airy-based international water law specialist who prepared the deeds for the sale of the seven lots, said he was working on renovations at an investment property in Grays Ferry when he met Meighan.

Meighan stopped by Kornfeld’s worksite one day with a pound cake from Port Richmond’s Stock’s Bakery and told the lawyer he needed help with the documents because his usual lawyer was too busy. Meighan said he would handle the deeds’ notarization and recording himself.

“Although I thought that was screwy, I’ve seen worse deals than that,” Kornfeld said. “So I put together the deeds, charged him 700 bucks or something, and that was it.”

Over the following year, as news of Meighan’s deal with himself filtered through the community, neighbors mulled whether they had any way of getting the properties back into communal hands.

Carmine Zulli, president of the nonprofit Grays Ferry Community Council, said Meighan at one point commented that he was considering giving the lots to the community group.

Then Meighan backtracked, saying he planned to sell them to developers or possibly build homes on them himself in the future, Zulli said.

Meighan asserted that it had been within his rights to assume the properties from the Guenther Street association, Zulli said, because the group had never been formally registered as a charitable organization.

Indeed, no “Guenther Street Civic Association” has ever been registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State, a spokesperson for the agency said.

Brian Clinton, an assistant chief of staff for Mayor Jim Kenney who comes from a well-known Grays Ferry family, said he was attending Mass at St. Gabriel last spring when a Guenther Street association member told him about Meighan’s sale to himself and asked for his help.

Clinton verified transaction details with the city records office and alerted a contact at the District Attorney’s Office, which conducted an investigation that included interviews with neighbors. That investigation concluded last month, but prosecutors haven’t told Clinton whether they plan to file charges.

A district attorney’s spokesperson declined to comment.

“The neighborhood was blindsided,” Clinton said. “They feel betrayed that one of their own — a neighbor that everyone knows and grew up with — felt like they could do this.”