Sara Gallo learned in February that half of the building where she lives in Fishtown was going to be demolished.
She was understandably concerned.
Three weeks earlier, demolition work in a basement a few blocks away on East Thompson Street had caused an adjoining rowhouse to collapse. When the walls began shaking and the ceiling caved in, the Klenk family had to kick down their front door to escape to the street. The city tore down both buildings a few days later.
Gallo’s situation on Earl Street seemed at least as precarious as the Klenks’ was. In her case, the building facing the wrecking ball wasn’t just next door; it was part of the same structure. A developer had purchased the decrepit other half of the 175-year-old twin house where she, her husband, and their son had lived for two years and counting. An engineer prepared a demolition report, and the owner got a permit to tear down his side of the building.
Then, as now, residents of Fishtown and surrounding neighborhoods felt overwhelmed and assaulted by a frenzy of careless and sometimes illegal demolition and construction. In their rush to profit from intense demand for new housing, contractors undermined basements, tore down shared walls, blocked sidewalks and streets, and raised endless clouds of dust. The Thompson Street disaster was followed by additional house collapses in the following months, including one on Tulip Street.
“The neighbors generally speaking were feeling pretty disempowered. The pace of gentrification was just steamrolling this neighborhood,” Gallo recalled. “The Thompson Street collapse was so dramatic that it was our own sort of MeToo moment, if you will.”
She and some of her neighbors joined a new Facebook group called the Riverwards L+I Coalition. A few residents had started the group to share stories of construction misery, and to teach one another how to get the attention of the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections. In the wake of Thompson Street, membership has jumped from a few hundred to 1,900, according to Venise Whitaker, a constituent services representative for City Council President Darrell Clarke, who is one of the group’s administrators.
“Everyone is relying on that Facebook group, now that it exists, to talk to one another and share information. I don’t think many of us were aware of any of the building codes, any of the zoning regulations,” Gallo said. “Through the group, now I’m very much aware. It’s been a crash course. The group is super useful and important, and I’m so glad that it exists.”
Gallo and Whitaker chatted on Facebook about construction vehicles that were constantly blocking Earl Street, where multiple projects were underway. When the demolition next door to Gallo was scheduled, Whitaker helped her get a copy of the engineer’s report, which described the two halves of the twin as separate structures. Gallo described the report as “wildly inaccurate.” She quickly hired her own engineer, who wrote a new report explaining that the homes were definitely one building and demolition should be done very carefully, with hand tools.
Whitaker made sure L&I saw the new report, and the teardown was halted, Gallo said. Although the work would eventually resume, the Riverwards L&I Coalition had broken new ground in getting the city to act quickly in response to a questionable project.
“I think it was the first time that we were able to get the attention of the appropriate officials within L&I and the local government to delay it, and not just take a developer’s word that everything was going to be fine,” Gallo said. “You know, L&I is not some distant, unknowable, inscrutable organization anymore. It’s still a bureaucracy, but the Facebook group has given us all some assurance we can get their attention if we really need their attention.”
From comment thread to courtroom
Gallo and others credit Whitaker for guiding them on how to respond to construction violations and connect with L&I. Whitaker, a social-work therapist by training, has experience with historic preservation and local ward politics. She once battled a problematic developer on her own block in Fishtown who threatened to sue her.
Whitaker is a constant presence in the Facebook group, pulling up L&I records and advising members on how permits work and how to report violations. She meets regularly with L&I Commissioner David Perri and other officials, meetings that her neighbors say have improved the department’s response to the city’s construction boom. Whitaker and Perri will speak Thursday at a discussion of construction permitting sponsored by the Design Advocacy Group.
Both Perri and Whitaker acknowledge the power in the Riverwards Facebook group — and its relevance to other parts of the city experiencing rapid growth.
“We support development, but we just want it safe with the neighborhood. So the group has definitely grown,” Whitaker said. “I sometimes I get five to 20 messages a day from people throughout the River Wards and even farther throughout the city.”
Whitaker stands out in a crowd, with chunky black-frame glasses, bright yellow hair, and tattoos down her arm. A recent evening found her standing in the back of a room at the Fishtown Recreation Center, scowling at a developers’ representatives along with about 40 other area residents. The city was requiring the developer, Streamline, to take community input on a 244-unit apartment building it has proposed for Delaware Avenue across from Sugarhouse Casino.
The neighbors criticized the proposed apartment building as too tall and imposing, describing it as a battleship-like “monstrosity.”
“It looks like a prison,” Whitaker said.
They also asked about the historic Edward Corner building next door, which began shedding bricks after Streamline allegedly mishandled its preservation. That incident, assiduously documented by the Riverwards Facebook group, resulted in L&I taking legal action to compel the developer to stabilize the historic maritime warehouse.
In the end, the residents gathered at the Fishtown rec center voted overwhelmingly not to endorse the Streamline project.
Afterward, a woman approached Whitaker and peppered her with details about a next-door neighbor’s construction project. It involved a possible property-line violation and an engineer who may have quit because of a disagreement about underpinning. Underpinning is done to strengthen a foundation and allow a deeper basement, but faulty work has been implicated in some construction collapses. Whitaker advised the woman to call a city inspector.
“I have my questions ready. I’m calling him at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning. According to her, he was telling her how wonderful underpinning was,” the woman said.
“They recommend underpinning because they say that it saves that house. What we’re finding out is once you’re kind of moving that foundation, it actually may not be. So they can do step foundations,” Whitaker said.
“I wasn’t there when the underpinning was done. I went to Florida,” the woman said.
“The thing is, the people doing the underpinning don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Whitaker said.
‘The eyes and ears of the community’
Whitaker’s interest in what she calls “construction destruction” dates to 2016, when she watched the new owners of the Rocket Cat Cafe, a punk rock cafe at Frankford Avenue and Norris Street, start demolishing the building with the goal of reopening early the next year. They encountered structural problems and were hit with several L&I violations. Nearly three years later, the cafe remains closed, and construction continues. Last month, the project received two more violations related to plumbing.
Over and over, Whitaker said, inexperienced would-be developers get in over their heads and blight neighborhoods with incomplete and sometimes unsafe projects.
“We’re having a lot of investors that are coming in, and they’re not realizing the cost to build because it’s someone that has no experience in developing, building, planning — nothing. So they buy something and, for whatever reason, assume all they need is like $100,000 or $200,000, if that, to do the entire site,” she said. “They lose money, and they have to try to find new investors or get another mortgage on the property.”
Whitaker recalled that last year, during work to enlarge a property on her block, neighbors noticed a piece of roof hanging precariously off the side of the building and called 311. One May morning at 5:30, a car-length cornice fell off and smashed on the ground, she said. She reported it, the developer was hit with several violations, and he threatened to sue her for making the reports, she said. The project has since been completed.
“That was how I started really seeing what was going on and the kind of people that were coming into my neighborhood and investing and working. They were just kind of very inexperienced,” she said.
The Facebook group is now filled with streams of photos of unpermitted work and inconsiderate contractors: Dump trucks honking and blocking sidewalks at 7 a.m.; contractors working without permits; developers tearing off roofs and walls despite stop-work orders; workers illegally hooking up to water hydrants.
Gallo posted photos of her basement flooding after workers ripped open a water pipe, and a video of her struggling to open her front door, which got stuck shut as her home shifted because of the adjacent demolition.
Last year, Perri went on a walking tour of Fishtown and talked with Whitaker about how to make the L&I process work better for residents. L&I followed up by designating the newly formed Riverwards coalition as a resident advisory council for the department, and assigned a quality control inspector just to handle issues in that area. The department also set up a system in which Whitaker can contact upper-level officials directly if she learns of an unsafe excavation or other emergencies, rather than reporting it through the 311 system, which can take several days.
“This coalition that Venise has put together has been outstanding. She and her cohorts have worked very hard in assembling information and getting issues that are important to the community in the ears of L&I at its highest levels,” Perri said. “In a couple circumstances, her activism here has prevented injury or maybe even a death in some of these construction issues we’ve had in the River Wards. In my book, she’s a hero and tireless servant for the community.”
Perri noted that L&I has plenty of inspectors: 165 total, including 80 who inspect construction sites and 15 who oversee demolitions and respond to emergencies. But he said it is not the department’s role to serve as project manager for the hundreds of sites that are active at any given time.
“We need to rely on the eyes and ears of the community to inform us of things that are happening that will not come up during the normal inspection cycle,” Perri said. “In order to make that most effective, we think it’s worthwhile to invest in educating the community and coming up with a mechanism for the community to have better access when there are situations that are critical.”
Perri said the Riverward coalition’s work is informing L&I’s ongoing efforts to address underlying issues in construction and prevent unsafe or unpermitted projects from happening in the first place.
The department now requires residential contractors to meet with inspectors before starting work, and it has assigned staff to patrol areas with heavy construction activity on the weekends, Perri said. It stopped issuing a type of permit that was being used to cover up unpermitted work, and has stepped up revocations of licenses of irresponsible contractors and criminal referrals to the District Attorney’s Office.
L&I is also creating a special excavations license and will propose new legislation to regulate demolition of twins and certain other properties, Perri said. Another proposed rule would require engineering evaluations of historic structures and the installation of bracing, if necessary, before they are renovated.
Gallo and others credit Whitaker for pushing change forward in an environment where reform can be slow going.
“Venise’s position within the local government is key, because she gets to walk that line between being a concerned citizen and also someone who can advocate for us more effectively because she’s inside,” Gallo said.
Meanwhile, Whitaker continues her work advising, informing, and providing a sympathetic ear for her neighbors. Over one recent week, she posted to the Facebook group a list of new right-of-way permits for vehicles and projects that would block streets; urged members to check their homeowner’s insurance; asked whether anyone could take drone footage of a suspect site; chided people who post trolling comments; described her lingering anxiety from being intimidated last year; and announced a “construction destresser” meeting for residents to exorcise their demons from living with house damage, yard pollution, and legal troubles.
She also celebrated stories of successful advocacy and speedy L&I enforcement, and congratulated the group for standing strong in the face of an endless stream of challenges.
“Thank you to all my neighbors throughout the River Wards and Philly-wide,” she wrote one day, over an animated GIF of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, running down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “I am so amazed by the success of our group. You know you’re from Philly when you roll deep, protect your neighborhood and stand up to anyone who doesn’t respect our city.”