Nutter: Philly overhauling how demolitions are done

Just days after the deadly building collapse on Market Street, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The mayor says the idea is to put private demolition projects through the same level of scrutiny that public projects would get.

All new demolition activities will have new standards for permission, including site safety plans, inspections by engineers and prohibitions on the use of machinery if the site is next to an occupied building.

“Whatever we can do, even at this moment, going forward, to try to prevent any future tragedies — that is the role of government,” Nutter said.

Nutter says the city “will not accept the status quo” in the face of Wednesday’s collapse.

He proposed roughly a dozen new standards — ranging from a ban on using machinery to demolish buildings that are next to occupied ones, to new permitting and inspection practices.

While not placing blame on city officials, Nutter did promise to make significant improvements.

“And we are all very saddened and hurt,” he said. “And as a city government, we apologize to all of our citizens for what has happened in these past two days.”

Nutter says some of the new standards will go into effect immediately, while others will need legislative action from city council. He also announced an investigation by city Inspector General Amy Kurland and a review of all demolition permits currently active across the city.

The collapse has brought swift and mounting fallout in a city where demolition contractors are lightly regulated. Officials have begun inspecting hundreds of demolition sites citywide, and a city councilman charged that dangerous, under-the-radar tear-downs are taking place throughout Philadelphia.

The Department of Licenses and Inspections said it had 300 open demolition permits throughout the city; inspectors had visited about 30 of the sites by Thursday afternoon and planned to get to the rest by next week.

The spot inspections included all four construction and demolition sites connected to Campbell. The city found violations at two of the Campbell sites and ordered a halt to the work.

Councilman James Kenney, among others, called for a review of the demolition application and inspection process and demanded a stricter process for demolition companies.

“This is happening all over the city,” he said. “I need to know who the workers are who are there, what they know, what they don’t know, how they’ve been trained.”

The city does check the condition of buildings to be torn down before demolition can begin — and inspects them again after the tear-down is finished — but does not require an inspection during demolition. A pre-demolition inspection at the site on May 14 turned up no issues, said Carlton Williams, head of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Pennsylvania does not license demolition contractors, nor does the city. Williams said the city code does not require demolition contractors to show any proficiency in tearing down buildings.

“Buildings get demolished all the time in the city of Philadelphia with active buildings right next to them. … They’re done safely in this city all the time,” Mayor Michael Nutter said Thursday. “Something obviously went wrong here yesterday and possibly in the days leading up to it. That’s what the investigation is for.”

Nutter said he was unaware of any complaints about the demolition work done by Campbell in the days before the tragedy. But the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it had gotten a complaint May 15 that workers at the site were at risk of falling. The complaint was still open at the time of the disaster, U.S. Labor Department spokeswoman Leni Uddyback-Fortson said.

OSHA regulates the demolition industry and enforces standards meant to ensure worker safety. Among other things, its regulations forbid any wall section exceeding one story to stand alone without bracing, unless the wall was designed that way. Witnesses have said they saw a 30-foot section of unbraced wall before the collapse.

A video of the demolition taken the Sunday before the collapse showed bricks raining down on the sidewalk as a worker used a backhoe and claw to remove a second-story front wall.

The sidewalk and the staircase leading up from a subway stop appeared open to pedestrians despite the falling bricks. Cars and trucks could also be seen going past, just a few feet away.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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