Old City fire update: Chestnut Street is reopen between Second and Third

Reconstruction has been slow-going since the Feb. 18 blaze.

Chestnut Street between Third and Second has finally reopened

Chestnut Street between Third and Second has finally reopened

Philadelphia Dept. of Licenses and Inspections
michaelawinberg-2020-2

Ten and a half weeks after a it was shut down by a devastating fire, Chestnut Street in Old City has finally reopened to vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

Thursday night, crews removed the final crane and took down the barriers that had been cordoning off the block between Second and Third since the Feb. 18 incident — a four-alarm blaze that ravaged buildings along the north side of the street, and forced several nearby businesses to temporarily close.

Arson had been floated as a possible cause of the catastrophe, which is thought to have originated in the basement of 239 Chestnut St. However, the Fire Marshall’s Office still investigating and has not reached any conclusions, per Fire Dept. spokesperson Kathy Matheson.

“It ended up taking a long time,” said Karen Guss, spokesperson the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections, which has been helping coordinate the city’s response. “Much longer than anyone expected.”

Work at this scene was particularly challenging, per city officials, who cited the affected buildings’ age — most were built in the 1850s — and interconnectivity (their structures rely on each other for stability) as reasons for the delays. Several spates of bad weather, some with tropical storm-force winds, didn’t help anything.

But after 74 days of working and waiting, it appears situation is finally approaching resolution.

The scene at Third and Chestnut at the end of April

The scene at Third and Chestnut at the end of April

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

What’s happened so far

  • Two engineering firms — Keast & Hood and O’Donnell & Nacarrato — determined the original brownstone construction at 239 Chestnut had deteriorated and “could not be salvaged”
  • Langan, an engineering and consulting firm, performed a 3D laser survey of 239 Chestnut St.’s facade
  • Private construction crews from Intech and JPC Group shored the structure of 237 Chestnut Street from the basement to the floor so it wouldn’t be damaged by the demolition of 239
  • The city brought in two cranes — one to grip and remove items, and the other to provide a place for workers to stand — one of which was placed on Chestnut and the other on Third
  • City crews took down most of 239 Chestnut St., but were able to preserve the first floor, which, unlike the rest of the building, was discovered to be made from cast iron poured into molds (it is currently being stored off-site)
  • They removed both cranes, allowing crews to reopen Third Street and Chestnut
  • Taken down 239 Chestnut St.
  • Installed fencing to block off any remaining dangerous structures

What’s left to do

  • Totally “gut and rebuild” the hotel at 235 Chestnut St. (which will be done privately by the owners of the building)
  • Get rid of construction dumpsters

Local businesses whose storefronts were rendered inaccessible by the construction are likely thrilled about these developments, but the street reopening comes with a caveat, since there’s still reconstruction work to do.

“When there is that kind of construction going on in a block in a narrow area,” Guss said, “it’s safe to say there will be off-and-on street closures going forward.”

Stephanie Reitano owns Capofitto, a gelato shop and pizzeria on Chestnut near Third. She said the construction impacted her business substantially — foot traffic is her main source of customers, and they’ve been impeded by the road closures.

Capofitto, a gelato shop on Chestnut, has seen a substantial drop in business since the Old City fire.

Capofitto, a gelato shop on Chestnut, has seen a substantial drop in business since the Old City fire.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

At times, there were cranes and dumpsters parked right outside her store. One Friday night last month, when a police car was stationed at the corner, Reitano said she did 25 percent of her usual business — that’s worse than how she does in a snowstorm.

“We dealt almost every day with people calling and saying, I can’t find you,” Reitano said.

In March, the city recommended businesses impacted by the fire apply for Storefront Improvement Program grants. The program offers reimbursements of up to 50 percent when a business owner spends $10,000 improving a single commercial property. Philly’s Department of Commerce cites masonry/brick pointing, exterior painting and signage as a few possible ways to spend the money.

But for Reitano, having the thoroughfare finally reopen is the biggest improvement.

“I’m dancing in the street,” she said Friday afternoon. “For once, it’s nice to have to dodge cars.”

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