The sky isn’t falling — but it sure looks like it could

A large crane looms over the 1400 block of Chestnut Avenue.

A large crane looms over the 1400 block of Chestnut Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

On the north side of Chestnut, opposite the Prince Theater, construction crews are building two hotels, one of which will rise 52 stories. Last May, construction began and the crane went in. And some crane it is: As the tower crane uses cables and pulleys to lift a massive hunk of metal or concrete, it needs a counterweight for balance.

“The sky is falling,” said Chicken Little when a puny acorn fell on her head. The sky I’m worried about is 20 tons of concrete hanging over the 1400 block of Chestnut Street in Center City. A fire-engine-red crane dangles a counterweight day and night, night and day, during work hours and while you are sleeping. Tragedy looms.

I live and work terrifyingly close to that site. I can see the crane, and beyond it City Hall and the tower that used to house the Inquirer. I have often walked down that street before, but no more. I’m taking Market or Sansom instead.

On the north side of Chestnut, opposite the Prince Theater, construction crews are building two hotels, one of which will rise 52 stories. Last May, construction began and the crane went in. And some crane it is: As the tower crane uses cables and pulleys to lift a massive hunk of metal or concrete, it needs a counterweight for balance. That weight must exceed the weight the crane is transporting. This particular counterweight, three gigantic concrete slabs, threatens any and all pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, trucks and four SEPTA bus routes.

The website HowStuffWorks.com says that a typical construction crane uses a counterweight of 20 tons, which roughly equals two and a half elephants, 12 cars, or 7,000 bricks.

I can’t quite comprehend the physics, but if that abundance of concrete fell, Chicken and I would end up flat as pancakes. I’m sure concrete bits the size of car doors would break off and fly in multiple directions, jeopardizing many humans and much property.

crane 1200x675A large crane looms over the 1400 block of Chestnut Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

I’m petrified. For months, I have been asking local police officers about the risk. They agree it looks alarming, but they often report the situation to their supervisors, to no avail.

So I started my own inquiry into safety.

The Ninth District police headquarters told me to call 311, the city’s consumer phone number.
A 311 operator said that the Department of Licenses and Inspections, will report to me within two to 10 days. That didnt happen.
Three weeks later, I called L+I again. Still awaiting a response.
The architectural firm doesn’t return phone messages.
The structural engineering firm avoids both phone and email messages.
The construction-management firm, based in California, directing this project from New York State: ditto.
The two hotel chains: ditto.
The development company, owned by one of the richest men in the Philadelphia area, has a web page containing a single line of text: “ALL MEDIA INQUIRIES, PLEASE CONTACT” followed by a name, office phone number, and Philadelphia agency email address. Her phone message says she’s not there. An email to her bounced back. A call to the switchboard revealed the dreaded “She is no longer with us.”
I wrote a letter to the editor of the Inquirer, warning of the civic danger, but it never appeared in print.

A man who manages other construction sites suggested I stop hyperventilating. He trusts the city’s system of checks and balances: registered architects, certified engineers, and experienced construction companies all under the auspices of L+I. Yet he, too, steers clear of the “ass end” of that crane.

A driver of the 42 bus told me that, when he approaches the site, he prays. (He made the sign of the cross, slowly, for emphasis.)

I remain skeptical. Despite warnings, a Center City construction site collapsed onto a Salvation Army Thrift in 2013, killing six people and injuring 14.

Finally, Karen Guss, the communications director for L+I, called me back. She agrees that the crane looks treacherous. But, she said, the department is observing all applicable safety ordinances, regulations, and accepted practice. “L+I is safety focused. Safety obsessed,” she said. “We see those cranes, too. We walk these streets, too. That’s why we take our work so seriously.

“Is there a safety risk?” she said rhetorically. “It’s not accurate to say there is no safety risk. There’s construction all over the city, and all sites carry dangers. That’s no less the case here. Does L+I minimize the danger? Absolutely. Do they eliminate it? No, they don’t.”

A sensible response.

But until the crane comes down, before completion in 2018, I’ll stay off that block.

As Tony sings in “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story”:

“Could be! Who knows?There’s something due any day;I will know right away,soon as it shows.It may come cannonballing down through the sky …”

Something’s coming. Don’t know when, but it’s soon.

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