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City upset with business owner after he cleans up empty lotl

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PHILADELPHIA — There's a lot of trouble brewing next to a coffee house in a fast-developing neighborhood.

Ori Feibush, a real estate developer, has turned a trash-strewn city-owned lot — vacant for roughly 30 years — into a welcoming spot for customers of his month-old corner cafe, where they can enjoy their fair-trade organic java and pastries from local bakeries.

It may sound like a win-win, but the now-sparkling urban respite has angered city officials. They say Feibush shouldn't have done work on a lot he doesn't own or rent, shouldn't be using taxpayer-owned property to benefit his business and should have played by the rules.

Feibush said the city has rebuffed his overtures to buy the 20-by-100-foot lot in Point Breeze, a rowhouse neighborhood southwest of downtown Philadelphia where he has lived since 2006. So he said he spent at least $20,000 to remove 40 tons of trash and to add planters, tables and landscaping to it.

Feibush did not return calls and messages from The Associated Press to his personal and business phone numbers and Facebook pages. But a post on the real estate blog he owns and operates, Naked Philly, showed pictures of the "horrifying, city-owned cesspool" that existed, along with new shots of the manicured yard.

"Looking at the before and after photos, does this make any sense whatsoever to any human in the city of Philadelphia?" the post asked. "We get it that you're supposed to follow a process with this sort of thing, but what are you to do when the process is set up in such a backwards way that several years of requests through multiple channels somehow are never recognized or processed?"

The blog later posted two letters that Feibush said he sent last year inquiring about buying the lot.

In a statement, a spokesman for the city Redevelopment Authority said it had no record of any such inquiries. Paul Chrystie said Feibush could have sought to lease or buy the lot from the city before starting the renovations but chose not to.

"Mr. Feibush himself purchased three publicly owned properties earlier this year, so he knows how the process works," Chrystie said in the statement.

Besides Feibush, three others have expressed interest in buying the lot, which is worth at least $50,000. City officials did not elaborate on whether negotiations are in progress to sell the property or when a buyer would be picked.

Business owners in similar situations pay the city rent to use lots next to their properties, but Feibush is essentially using public property to benefit his business at taxpayers' expense, Chrystie said.

"It is not fair to either the taxpayers or the potential buyers who have played by the rules for Mr. Feibush to attempt to acquire the lot simply by occupying it," he said.

A woman walking by the coffee shop late Thursday afternoon said she couldn't understand the controversy.

"This makes the neighborhood better, so why would anyone try to mess with that?" asked Mindy Aaron, who said she moved in with a friend recently to an apartment a few blocks from the contested tract. "It's like someone giving you an amazing gift and you're turning it down."

Commenters on Facebook and local websites also were generally supportive of Feibush's efforts, but some acknowledged the city's concerns were valid, even if it took a wrongheaded approach. Last weekend, a group of neighbors held an event at the coffee shop to celebrate what they described on Facebook as "a thriving, safe community space."

Development has been fraught with tension in recent years in Point Breeze, where a flurry of new homes continue rising on vacant lots and dilapidated homes are being gutted and rehabbed.

The changes have pitted longtime residents fearing gentrification and higher property taxes against new neighbors whose pricey houses are raising home values. Neighborhood zoning hearings have grown so heated, with allegations of vote tampering, racism and governmental wrongdoing, that police were called.