Call it Kenyatta vs. Ori, round two.
Late last week, developer Ori Feibush filed a federal lawsuit against City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, accusing him once again of interfering with Feibush’s real estate business in Point Breeze. This time it has to do with a now-infamous vacant lot Feibush cleaned up years ago, and Johnson allegedly using his power to award it and other properties to a donor in a deal with the Philadelphia Land Bank gone wrong. Other defendants in the lawsuit include the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Land Bank.
This isn’t Johnson and Feibush’s first tangle. Not by a long shot. In addition to years of squabbling, Feibush was a candidate for Johnson’s Council seat in 2015 and was beaten soundly. Last year, a similar lawsuit to this one that claimed Johnson blocked the sale of two vacant lots to Feibush for personal reasons went to jury, and Feibush won. The City was forced to pay $34,000 in damages. Feibush claims Johnson’s “deliberate and intentional sabotage of an award of the Land Bank’s request for proposals” was yet another example of a vendetta, pointing out the election and the previous lawsuit.
The Land Bank ordeal dates back to last fall. In September, it sent out a request for proposal (RFP) seeking people to develop 10 publicly-owned properties in Point Breeze. One of the sites listed in the RFP was 1138-42 S. 20th Street. People who’ve closely followed the Johnson-Feibush saga may recognize that address. It’s the vacant lot Feibush cleaned up in 2012, for which Feibush had to deal with the city’s wrath because he didn’t own it.
Since then, Feibush had been leasing the property from the city. Its inclusion on the Land Bank would mean anybody could bid to purchase it and likely end his lease. The lawsuit states — in bold and in italics — “one day” after the court dismissed a post-trial motion by Johnson in Feibush’s previous lawsuit the 1138-42 S. 20th Street property was listed for sale by the Land Bank.
“On information and belief,” the lawsuit reads, “Johnson exercised his councilmanic prerogative to arrange for the 20th Street property to be listed for sale, specifically to frustrate Feibush and exact some measure of retribution on him for filing Feibush’s successful 2014 litigation against Johnson.”
Here’s where it gets even more interesting, per Feibush’s side: Within a month, Feibush had sent a proposal to purchase and redevelop the 10 properties, including the vacant lot on 20th Street, which per Land Bank rules could contain units costing no more than $230,000 and be so-called “workforce” housing. And the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, according to the lawsuit, told Feibush his proposal was the only one to meet the established guidelines for the RFP. It recommended the Land Bank award the property to Feibush’s OCF Holdings company, which was partnering with Universal Companies. Feibush’s attorneys also claim he had plans to develop similar properties he already owned around the 20th Street property into “workforce” housing and stated this to the Land Bank and Redevelopment Authority.
But Feibush wasn’t awarded the contract. The lawsuit claims Johnson instructed the Land Bank not to award it to Feibush and that the RFP was extended an extra 90 days. According to the lawsuit, on instruction from Johnson, the contract was awarded to one of his campaign donors, who had been provided with information contained in Feibush’s proposal.
Johnson has been accused of improperly using his councilmanic prerogative in real estate deals before. Last summer, the Daily News reported more than two dozen city-owned properties in his district had been no-bid sales, and the FBI was investigating his campaign contributors in what appeared to be “pay-to-play” sales of vacant lots.
Johnson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Feibush’s attorney. Feibush declined to comment.