Philly L&I chief defends demolition without permit

     A Google Maps image shows 1140 S. 24th St. before it was demolished. (<a href=Photo via GoogleMaps) " title="demolish" width="640" height="360"/>

    A Google Maps image shows 1140 S. 24th St. before it was demolished. (Photo via GoogleMaps)

    Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams is defending his decision last year to allow a contractor to tear down a decaying South Philadelphia building without a demolition permit.

    New rules imposed after the 2013 Center City building collapse that killed six people require far more background information and training of demolition contractors, as well as site-safety plans for any demolition.

    Williams, who said he met with the contractor at his request, said the contractor was prepared to demolish a private building in Point Breeze, but hadn’t yet been able to get a demolition permit.

    A front-page story in Monday’s Inquirer reported that a complaint from an unnamed L&I inspector charges Williams gave the contractor, Dd Fox, the go-ahead for the demolition after the contractor told Williams he was financially strapped and needed to start work to get paid.

    “That’s absolutely not true,” Williams told me in an interview. “I did not give anyone preferential treatment based on a financial hardship.”

    Williams said he looked into the building and found it was “a freestanding building that had no support, that had breaches and had bulges and a previous history of collapses.”

    Executive action

    I asked Williams why, if the building were imminently dangerous, he would ask the contractor to proceed without the permit rather than getting another contractor or having city crews do the work.

    “I didn’t want to spend taxpayer dollars on somebody’s private demolition,” Williams said. “That demolition would have cost $25,000, easily.”

    “I had a viable contractor and owner who could be held responsible, [a contractor] who had a contractor’s license, who’s done demolition work in the city before,” Williams said. “This is the reason why I told him to take it down immediately.”

    Williams sent me photos taken from Google Maps in August 2014, the month the building was demolished, to show its condition before it was taken down. It appears to lack a roof and have vegetation growing inside.

    Williams said the contractor did eventually complete the requirements and get the demolition permit in November. He said it included the required site-safety plan for the demolition. When I asked, he told me the department had inspectors on the job and ensured that it was conducted in accordance with safety standards.

    I asked Williams if it were less than ideal to have the permit granted three months after the demolition.

    “No, it’s not ideal,” he said. “But it’s also not ideal to have a freestanding wall without any support next to a public walkway just standing there for months at a time.”

    I asked for a copy of the contractor’s site-safety plan that was eventually submitted, and Williams’ chief of staff, Beth Grossman, provided an engineering report the contractor submitted. From my layman’s reading, it appears to offer a pretty detailed description of the steps needed to safely demolish the property (link below).

    “That’s the site-safety plan,” Grossman said.

    It’s worth noting that it’s dated July 21, 2014, and was submitted with the contractor’s application for a demolition permit on July 25 of that year. In other words, according to this account, the contractor did have a responsible plan for safe demolition (the cost was estimated at $19,500), but wanted to start before the permit would be issued.

    What’s the hurry?

    It’s apparently legal, though not common, for the L&I commissioner to intervene in a case like this and approve work on a project without a permit.

    But why did the contractor wanted to start before he got a permit?

    The Inquirer story quotes unnamed L&I inspectors and an inspector general’s complaint the paper said one of them filed as saying essentially that Williams intervened because the contractor had financial issues. It suggests the property hadn’t been regarded as “imminently dangerous” until somebody needed a reason to speed things up.

    Williams said the contractor came to him not because of financial issues, but because he was concerned the property was such a risk that it would be dangerous to wait through the permitting process before beginning demolition.

    Williams said he looked a photos that came with the engineering report and the property’s record, which included partial collapses, and concluded it was time to act.

    It’s hard for me to sort out the truth from the records and accounts available at the moment.

    I can imagine a scenario in which the department is struggling to implement the new requirements and issue permits promptly, and the commissioner decides to move early with a contractor he trusts on a hazardous property.

    And you can always imagine a less savory scenario.

    Assuming there is a complaint to city Inspector General Amy Kurland, I trust her to try and get to the bottom of it.

    You can read the engineering report and the other documents L&I provided on the property here.

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