Growing up near the Italian Market, 70-year-old Robert Caporiccio remembers when he was a child and the American Ice and Coal Co. bustled with activity.
Like many, his family purchased ice from the business that spanned almost the entire east side of Ninth Street from Washington Avenue to Ellsworth Street. Caporiccio recalled how horse-drawn wagons and, later, trucks lined Washington after stocking up at the business for home deliveries.
But it’s been at least 40 years since the last blocks of ice and bags of coal were carried out of what everyone simply now calls "the icehouse," Caporiccio of Ninth and Reed streets said last Thursday while talking to a man who lives across from the building.
Pointing to the part of the icehouse closest to Washington, the two marveled how American Ice and Coal Co. could still be read in faded white paint on the massive brick edifice.
But not for long.
By year’s end, the structurally damaged relic will have a date with the wrecking ball to make way for a brand-new, two-story mixed-use facility of senior housing and retail shops, 1st District Councilman Frank DiCicco said. With architectural plans already drawn up, the project will cost a minimum of $800,000 to $1 million and feature 51 rental apartments on the second floor and about five to seven shops at ground level, DiCicco said.
"It’s in a thriving neighborhood to create affordable housing for seniors. Our hope is by renovating this blighted building that will be occupied by people living in the Market, we’ll stimulate interest in people wanting to live there and do business there," the councilman said.
It’s too early to determine what type of merchants will move in or whether they will be renting or owning, but offering shopping at ground level was a definite, DiCicco said. "We didn’t want to break up the continuity of retail stores [already] on the street level. We wanted to keep the Ninth Street Market as best we can at street level."
Sadly, none of the original architectural or interior design will be recreated in the new building because none exists given its deteriorated state, DiCicco noted.
Dating back at least 100 years, the icehouse was one of three in the Italian Market area alone, harkening to a time prior to home electricity and refrigeration or shortly thereafter when folks had to supplement with ice. "[Ice] was a big business," the councilman said.
Although seniors from anywhere are free to move there, the councilman would ideally like to see those living in the Market area sell their homes — which, for many, may have become more demanding in their care or they can no longer afford — and relocate. This will enable them to stay in the community while opening the doors for new residents to move into the seniors’ former dwellings, he said.
"My hope is to take this vacant, blighted area and people will move in and repopulate Ninth Street. It’s all part of revitalization and repopulation of the Ninth Street Market," DiCicco said.
One component of the plan is getting a chilly reception among many residents. In order to make way for the demolition, the councilman had to introduce a bill labeling the 1100 block of Darien Street and Ninth Street between Washington and Federal as "blighted," thereby making it possible for the Redevelopment Authority to condemn and acquire the icehouse under eminent domain laws.
Under an urban renewal effort, a property such as the icehouse needs to be part of a comprehensive plan, which is the reason the entire area had to be deemed blighted, not just the building in question, DiCicco said.
While he understands people are afraid of the tag, it must be part of the description in order to create an urban renewal area, he said.
"We only take properties if they are empty and blighted. We are not taking any property other than the icehouse property," DiCicco said.
But the man who lives across the street from the property, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, said he does not trust city government and believes in time other structures will be snatched up.
"I think they will [take others]. The government just wants to tear down and destroy rather than put money back into the community," he said, adding he feels the money it will cost to redevelop the icehouse could be better spent on keeping businesses alive in the Market. "Why don’t they share that wealth, give it to some of these struggling businesses. They should show some commitment to the community."
But Caporiccio disagreed and feels certain the city only wants the icehouse. "They’re not going to take these businesses. [The owners] put too much money into their businesses," he said, gesturing to the surrounding merchants.
J&J;’s South Philly Pizza owner Pino Villico said he’s not worried about losing his establishment at Ninth and Federal, but understands how other merchants might be. "I know people are scared about [the city] taking their properties. [They] can’t get this property because there is nothing wrong with this building," Villico said.
While the blighted designation is not sitting well with many folks, most think affordable senior housing is a good idea. "[Seniors] got everything here. They won’t have to walk or drive far. I think it will boost business in the Market," Caporiccio said.
Villico thinks the old building is a waste of space that should be turned into something to benefit the area. "The way it is, it’s no good. To fix up, put stores on the bottom — to me that’s a good idea because it will bring more volume," he said.
Foot traffic is something the Ninth Street Corridor from Washington to Ellsworth has not seen much of until recently with a smattering of new ventures, such as alternative performance venue Connie’s Ric Rac directly across from the icehouse and at least a half-dozen Mexican shops, including record stores and grocers.
For decades, the southernmost stretch of the Italian Market was home to vacant buildings like the icehouse and undesirables, many have said. "Now half the places are closed up," Caporiccio said gesturing around him. "The [fruit] stands are just laying here. At one time this used to be a busy street. Now look at it."
He recalled as a boy produce stands lined the street directly outside the icehouse and believes that could happen again with the housing and retail complex breathing new life into the area. "People might start renting these stands again," he said.
The seeds of the senior plan were planted about five years ago when St. Marons Catholic Church at 10th and Ellsworth streets approached DiCicco with a need to locate affordable senior housing in the neighborhood for its elderly congregates.
Originally, church officials wanted to purchase some smaller properties in hopes of developing them, but the councilman explained that was cost prohibitive for the small parish with soaring property values in the Italian Market and the cost of renovation.
For years, DiCicco had wanted to do something with the old icehouse, so he approached St. Marons and they loved the idea, he said.
St. Marons Monsignor Sharbel Lichaa referred the Review to church council member and parishioner Joseph Katter for comment, who said about a year ago, St. Marons and New Jersey-based private developer Community Investment Strategies Inc., which specializes in senior housing, entered into talks for the redevelopment.
Both will fund the redevelopment with no city money, DiCicco’s legislative aide Brian Abernathy said.
Asked how a church is going to come up with the kind of money required for this project, Katter replied, "My understanding is that the structure of this allows for the developer in collaboration with a nonprofit entity to apply for tax credits from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And that is how these projects are generally funded."
About a decade ago, long before St. Marons entered the picture, the building’s owner, Jerald Goldfine, who owns Valu-Plus stores in the area under the auspices of Carmel Realty, approached DiCicco about getting Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to develop the structure into a Valu-Plus. After getting the TIF, the owner didn’t do anything with the building for what DiCicco believes were economic reasons.
Carmel Realty attorney Stephen Pollock did not return calls by press time.
The building has been up for sale for years, but with no interested parties, the councilman decided to move ahead with his bill to condemn it so St. Marons and Community Investment Strategies could bring senior housing to the area, DiCicco said. At press time, permission had been given to the Redevelopment Authority to take the icehouse and, in the coming months, a fair-market price will be presented to Goldfine who then has the right to accept or reject it, DiCicco added.
In recent months, two meetings informing residents about the project took place with the Ninth Street Market Merchants Association and Passyunk Square Civic Association, the latter included because it is in the boundaries of the blighted area, DiCicco said.
"The general consensus of the Civic Association and residents is we do want that area redeveloped and I think the idea of senior housing is something people in [Passyunk] support," association Vice President Geoff DiMasi told the Review. "What’s really important to us was preserving a continuous commercial storefront. Ninth Street is such a historic commercial district and I think it’s important to preserve that."
Ninth Street association President Pip DeLuca could not be reached by press time.
DiMasi trusts DiCicco’s promise of only wanting the icehouse and has no concerns about eminent domain for the area in question. "I believe that and I think that everybody knows that but in the back of everybody’s minds they’re thinking, ‘Oh what if they want to do a massive renewal project down Ninth Street,’" he said before adding, "This is a very pivotal time for Ninth Street — and a very interesting one."