Demolitions are speedier in Philly, but are they safer a year after building collapse?

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One year ago, a building being demolished in Center City Philadelphia came crashing down onto the Salvation Army Thrift Store, killing six people and injuring 14. 

Just 48 hours later, Mayor Michael Nutter announced a host of reforms to prevent it from happening again. In February, the City Council unanimously passed five bills aimed at fortifying Philadelphia’s demolition regulations and beefing up requirements for contractors.

Have the new rules made a difference? 

“I certainly believe so,” said Carlton Williams, commissioner of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I). “The Department of Licenses and Inspections is deeply concerned and caring about those who have lost their lives or [were] severely injured by this tragedy … and our job is continuously work hard to improve and evolve to try to prevent a situation like this from happening in the future.”

But Philadelphia’s top auditor and a lawyer for victims of last year’s collapse say the city has a long, long way to go before it can claim victory.

Sidewalk auctions

On the 6100 block of Callowhill Street in West Philadelphia, a scary-looking but not-at-all unusual building sits vacant. 

Scott Mulderig, director of L&I’s emergency services division, has his eye on it. His division, created in the wake of the building collapse, is charged with pinpointing Philadelphia’s most dangerous properties and, in many cases, quickly tearing them down.

“The roof’s completely gone,” he said, examining the property on Wednesday. “It’s definitely a hazard.”

The city government recently determined that the privately-owned, three-story rowhouse, which has unpaid taxes dating to 2006, is “imminently dangerous.” It sits between two occupied homes, and its interior is covered with mildew, fallen beams and other debris.

Mulderig said the city had issued several violations to the property owner, but he failed to fix up the property as required by law. So on Wednesday at 10 a.m., Mulderig invited a group of pre-approved contractors to Callowhill Street to bid on demolishing the house. 

The contractors inspected every inch of the building they could, prying open the boarded-up doors with a crowbar and even climbing through poison ivy to get a look at its back side. Then, right in the middle of the street, the contractors each handed an L&I supervisor pieces of paper with the price they’d accept for the job.

Pedro Palmer, owner of Palmer Construction, won with a $22,200 bid. He was required to start work in the next three hours. Within a month, Mulderig said the dangerous property will finally be gone, no doubt easing the minds of neighbors.

In the last year, Mulderig said city contractors have torn down about 500 unsafe properties like the one on Callowhill Street. Next year, he expects to demolish 650.

L&I Commissioner Williams said creating Mulderig’s emergency services division is just one of many recent reforms that have made the city a safer place. Another new division cracks down on illegal work at construction sites, and demolition contractors must now go through a rigorous review before they can obtain a permit, he said.

“The application process now includes a 20-day review, where it used to be an over-the-counter permit,” he said. “We look at contractors’ experience. We look at site safety plans that are required now, and we also look at work schedules so that we can make sure that the project is progressing safely.”

Making reforms stick

Lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi represents six people injured in the building collapse and the families of two who were killed. He said the single-most important change the city made after the tragedy was requiring demolition contractors to submit a safety plan.

The problem, according to Mongeluzzi, is that the city doesn’t always enforce its own rule. When it hires pre-approved contractors to demolish unsafe properties three stories or shorter, he said the city isn’t forcing them to submit that safety plan.

“The fact that the city is now letting contractors get away with not submitting it, even though their own rule requires that they submit it, is just dead wrong,” Mongeluzzi said. “At some point, we’re going to have another collapse and the blood’s going to be on their hands.”

City Controller Alan Butkovitz audited L&I recently and found similar results. He looked at 14 demolition permits for private properties, and said four of them didn’t include a safety plan.

“The lack of a safety plan is the most egregious failure,” he said. “That was one of the most important reforms that was touted.”

Butkovitz’s report, which the Nutter administration objected to strongly, also found that L&I kept shoddy records and sometimes waived demolition requirements if a building was deemed “imminently dangerous.”

“They say that they’re doing all sorts of safety measures to make sure this won’t happen again,” he said, “and it turns out they’re not doing them.”

Williams, the L&I commissioner, said Butkovitz’s office grossly misunderstood the department’s records and that, in fact, city workers enforced the new rules exactly as they ought to. He admitted L&I’s data system is outdated and confusing, however, and said it will be updated next year.

“When it was created in 1999, it was better than what we ever had in the city of Philadelphia,” he said. “But in today’s time, it’s like the DVD player of the past. It’s prehistoric.”

Williams also said it is true that pre-approved contractors working for the city do not need to submit their own safety plans to demolish small buildings; however, he said, that is only because the city has a standard, strict safety plan that they must adopt when they take the job.

Where exactly the truth lies, we may soon know. A blue-ribbon commission has been appointed to investigate L&I and determine whether its reforms are making a difference. It plans to release a report in September.

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