Tragedy and Turmoil at Fitler Square’s Prolonged “Sansom5” Construction Site
Financial Struggles, Safety Concerns, and Unforeseen Delays Dog Philly's Luxury Sansom5 Development
Fitler Square residents may have found themselves wondering, at some point in the last two years, when the construction site at the corner of Sansom and South 24th streets would finally be clear of all its chain link fencing and orange barricades.
Over two years ago, the vision was crystal clear: five high-end townhomes, each boasting five stories of opulence, all nestled at the corner just down from Bonner’s Irish Pub.
Dreamed up by the city's real estate moguls and just steps away from Philadelphia's swankiest new social club, the ambitious Sansom5 project seemed poised to redefine upscale living. But now, with barricades still lining the streets and a chilling accident casting a shadow over the site, many are asking: What went wrong?
The demolition permits came through in February of 2020, and by December, the developer’s vision for the site had come to light: the old structure would be replaced with five 5-story luxury townhomes, complete with private garages and rooftop decks.
The project – dubbed Sansom5 – was the brainchild of one of the City’s most prolific developers, OCF Realty, in partnership with Bernier Real Estate Group and award-winning design firm Gnome Architects.
The location offered a few key selling points for prospective buyers. Of the most practical importance is its proximity to the reputable Albert M. Greenfield School, the second ranked elementary school in the Philadelphia School District.
But perhaps equally important was its proximity to the Fitler Club – Philly’s new members-only social club, which opened in 2019, just a year before construction began on these townhomes.
The Fitler Club was hailed as the “Anti-Union League,” or the “Union League for millennials,” in reference to the City’s oldest social club housed on Broad Street just south of City Hall. Framed in explicit opposition to the Union League, the Fitler Club was conceived as a hub for “New Philadelphians” – the talented, ambitious, wealthy urbanites who would be pivotal to the City’s transformation from “laggard” into “leader” on the world stage.
The construction of multi-million-dollar townhome mansions within walking distance to the Fitler Club was a step toward the realization of this vision. Small wonder that a nearly identical project was planned, around the same time and only a few steps away on South 24th Street, by Zatos Construction. Significant buzz surrounded these projects, especially given that Philadelphia at large was then in the midst of a luxury housing boom.
Fast-forward to the present day – well over two years since construction began – and the Sansom5 houses are still only almost finished. The interiors are gorgeous, and the units are even available to prospective buyers online as exclusive, non-public “pocket listings.” But the exteriors are lacking a few finishing touches, so resident dog-walkers are stuck with orange barricade eyesores.
Ori Feibush, CEO of lead developer OCF Realty, initially pointed to changes in the interest rate environment. When construction on Sansom5 began, interest rates were low; they’ve since skyrocketed, which has “reduced buyer interest for luxury living in Philadelphia.”
According to Feibush, his typical buyer for units in this price range – they’re listed for just under $3 million – are high-earning millennials who put down 20% up front and then mortgage the rest. For this cohort, higher interest rates are a substantial burden.
For this reason, Feibush is having trouble finding buyers – so much so that he’s shaved about a million dollars off the asking price.
Initially, he said that the “homes that are not complete are not complete so that buyers can customize finishes.” But when asked about specific exterior features that remain to be completed, Feibush conceded that they were unrelated to customization; they were among a handful of incomplete exterior features keeping that unsightly construction paraphernalia in public view.
And this, again, begs the question: why aren’t those features finished yet? Between February 2020 and September 2021, the builders were able to raze the old structure and top-out five new 5-story units. Windows were installed. All that remained for the exterior was some roofing and the facade – presumably a few months’ work, maybe a year, as winter was on its way.
A Fatal Accident Changes the Course
But then, in December 2021, tragedy struck the worksite. A laborer working on the rooftop stepped onto a makeshift platform he thought was supported; it gave way, and he fell to his death, leaving behind a wife and a three-month-old child.
The incident sparked a federal probe from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as an investigation from the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections.
The ensuing investigations showed that the worker was a sub-sub-contractor. DSPY, LLC employed the worker. Hammers Contractors hired DSPY, LLC, and Fitler Construction Group, the site manager OCF used for the project, hired Hammers Contractors.
At the time, Feibush told the Philadelphia Inquirer he was unaware that DSPY had been hired, and that OCF does not allow its subcontractors to bring other firms onto projects without approval.
The outcome of OSHA’s investigation, reported here for the first time: DSPY and Hammers were fined – $13,198 and $3,481, respectively – for violating federal workplace safety standards. Fitler Construction Group was not fined, and OCF was not a target of the probe.
However, the Department of Licenses and Inspections cited Fitler Construction Group twice within a week of the tragic accident for employing an unlicensed subcontractor.
This was not the first time the firm had run into trouble for such issues. L&I’s database contains numerous violations for the firm related to subcontractor information – all preceding the accident at the Sansom5 construction site.
In response to questions about OCF’s relationship with Fitler Construction Group, Feibush said over email, bluntly, “we do not work with [them] anymore.” He did not specify whether he was aware of the company’s history of subcontractor-related code violations, but later, in person, he stated that the fatal accident on the Sansom5 construction site merely “catalyzed the separation of an already strained relationship.”
Speaking of the tragedy itself, Feibush got emotional, saying that it made him “never want to build another home.” He told the Inquirer at the time that it was the first death at an OCF construction site, and it seems to haunt him to this day. He spoke solemnly of the deceased’s wife and child, and mentioned a desire to provide them with financial support.
That said, Feibush and OCF are still very much in the business of building homes, eleven of which have been underway at 244 North Second Street in Old City since at least March of 2022. On August 15, 2023, OSHA opened an investigation into unsafe work practices at this address, and this time OCF is a target in the probe.
An Uncertain Future
Time will tell if this investigation, like that into the fatal accident on the Sansom5 worksite, will set the Old City project back significantly.
As for Sansom5, Feibush says he’s seen a surge of interest in the units over the last month or so, having given several tours during a season that’s usually quiet for his company. At the time of this writing, commitments from buyers remain evasive, but Feibush is hopeful.
Regarding the enduring construction work, Feibush maintains that crews cannot finish the remaining exterior work until buyers are in place. “We cannot finish a few exterior connections until we finish the interiors,” he said, “and we don’t want to finish the interiors without buyer feedback.”
Correction: this article has been updated to clarify that the OSHA probe regarding 244 North Second Street, across town from Fitler Square in Old City, concerned an onsite hazard that posed a fall risk, but that no fall actually occurred.