The pair of aging properties on the 600 block of East Thompson Street were never anything but ordinary.
One was a squat, sprawling garage — its paint chipped and walls dirtied after decades of wear. The other, three stories tall, was a typical Fishtown rowhouse, wedged beside another home similar to it.
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But in the River Wards’ red-hot real estate market, 631 and 633 E. Thompson were a developer’s dream. Together, they offered nearly 4,100 square feet of developable space. A construction boom boded well for an investment return. And the properties’ owner at the time had a complicated history with the lots: back taxes, late payments, and a looming sheriff’s sale stemming from a mortgage foreclosure.
So, on Dec. 1, 2017 — just days before the properties were scheduled to be auctioned — the buildings were purchased by E. Thompson Development LLC, incorporated by Walter Marino. The group, which lists a Philadelphia address, paid $100,000 for both, real estate records show, after assuming the previous owner’s mortgage.
By 2019, redevelopment was on its way. On the website of 1217 Realty Group, which Marino founded, an advertisement for 633 E. Thompson appeared: “3 Story Single Family Home and Additional Units Coming Soon in Fishtown,” the ad said, according to a screenshot provided to The Inquirer.
The project would never be finished.
In February, 633 E. Thompson was irreparably damaged after a crew destroyed a shared foundation wall while working without proper permits underground. Next door, at 635 E. Thompson, the Klenk family felt its house tremble and saw the ceiling cave. They rushed to escape, kicking through a door that had suddenly jammed, and rolled 94-year-old Clovena, the matriarch, in her wheelchair to safety.
City officials, citing the properties’ instability, ordered that they be demolished. They crumpled easily days later as a city-hired construction crew clawed at them with demolition machinery — sending 61 years of Klenk memories tumbling to the ground.
In the months since, the Klenks have sought normalcy. Clovena and two of her children have found temporary housing. Yet at times, Clovena, suffering from dementia, forgets what happened; she’s confused about why she isn’t home.
But there’s something Clovena’s eight children can’t get past: What if they hadn’t immediately evacuated? So when they saw this summer that one of the properties that E. Thompson Development purchased — the squat garage next door — was for sale, they say, they grew angry that the developer was moving on without reaching out to offer help.
“The fact that they can profit from pretty much destroying someone’s family home is just sickening," said Shawn Klenk, Clovena’s 52-year-old son. “And so is the fact that the city will allow it.”
According to real estate listings online, 631 E. Thompson is on the market for $350,000. It is zoned to accommodate a single-family house. “Fantastic development opportunity in Fishtown,” the listing says. “Existing structure could be expanded or build new construction with parking.”
Maria Quattrone, the listing agent, said Monday that the developer is selling the property because he is no longer “interested in continuing to develop this project” and is instead “working on some other types of projects and different types of real estate." She emphasized that Marino was always open to selling 631 E. Thompson — even before the construction mishap next door. Since last year, she said, the garage property has been quietly marketed.
“I understand [why] the family was saying [they are upset that] this parcel is being sold, but it was always for sale,” Quattrone, CEO of Philadelphia-based RE/MAX@Home, said. “It just really wasn’t being marketed that way.”
A month and a half after the construction incident, E. Thompson Development moved to subdivide 631 and 633 E. Thompson — which had been purchased together — enabling the properties to be sold individually. E. Thompson Development remained the owner of both.
Marino, of E. Thompson Development, did not return a call for comment. A phone number for Q Construction Group, the company that Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections identified as the “contractor of record” in the incident at 633 E. Thompson, was disconnected. A lawyer for Brian Gerber, listed as president of Q Construction in the summer of 2018, did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.
Quattrone emphasized Monday that the garage property at 631 E. Thompson had “nothing to do with the property” that had to be demolished next door after the foundation wall was struck.
“It was a completely separate project,” she said.
She added that by the time the contractors had attempted to lower the basement walls of 633 E. Thompson, prompting the accident, the redevelopment of the remainder of the home was “almost finished.” “It had a brand-new kitchen and bath,” Quattrone said. The developer “was really upset.... The seller of this property — he’s the money person. He’s not the one doing [the construction] himself."
In response to the February incident, L&I revoked the license of Q Construction Group on March 20, a department spokesperson said. A District Attorney’s Office spokesperson confirmed that Gerber and Q Construction are still under investigation. Gerber has ties to another contracting company licensed in Philadelphia, records show. However, an L&I spokesperson said no permits have been pulled by that company in the months since.
Marino, meanwhile, remains active. Another real estate company he is connected to, E. Montgomery Development LLC, purchased a pair of properties around the corner on East Montgomery Avenue in 2018, records show. And his company, 1217 Realty Group, recently sold a property just a half-block away from the Klenks’ house, according to its website.
At 631 and 633 E. Thompson, however, it may have never been Marino’s intention to redevelop the properties. According to a lawsuit filed in Common Pleas Court last year, E. Thompson Development had an April 2018 agreement of sale with another buyer to purchase the side-by-side properties “as-is” for $1.05 million, a price that was later reduced to $700,000. E. Thompson Development alleged in the lawsuit that the buyer failed to terminate the contract within the specified time frame, making the agreement of sale fully enforceable. It also alleged that the buyer, a local LLC entity, failed to pay the series of deposits that the contract stipulated.
The case was settled and discontinued last year. At what point E. Thomson Development decided to move forward with developing the properties remains unclear.
Marino “was really upset" about what happened to the Klenks, Quattrone said. “I know it was very devastating. He’s a really good guy, and he would never want to have anything happen to anybody.”
As for the Klenks, they have consulted with attorneys regarding a possible lawsuit, but nothing has been filed. And they are meeting with architects about how to rebuild Clovena’s home. On the days she is confused, the close-knit family comforts her. But the Klenks want more than just a new home, they said. They also want change in a city where residents are often dazed by the pace — and dangers — of new construction.
“This needs to be a wake-up call, because I think residents are being victimized,” said Jennifer Romaniw, Clovena’s 42-year-old granddaughter. “There are no laws there to protect the residents that become victims. There really needs to be changes at the city level, at the state level, and at the federal level to hold these people accountable.”