Philly L&I permitting heavy on procedure, light on common sense

Procedural assumptions may have proved deadly six times over this week, as a fly-by-night demolition crew undertook a half-assed teardown on Market Street. The owner is a notorious blightlord, the demolition company a bankrupt tax delinquent, and the “crew” reportedly consisted of some dude with a sledgehammer swinging away at night. But by God, those permits were all in order.

The other day, I sat in the zoning board hearing room, watching a woman sob.

Choking back tears of nerves and frustration, she was telling zoning board members her side of an appeal she’d filed against the Department of Licenses and Inspections. The city had revoked the permit on a construction project ongoing by her small development company, basically she and her husband and three properties, including one on North 33rd Street.

The woman didn’t understand — hadn’t she gone through the right procedures, paid all her taxes, secured the required permit?

The first floor of the planned three-story building was about done, but L&I now said the work had to stop because the building plan didn’t include an 8-foot setback on the third floor, required as part of the “contextual zoning” aspect of the new zoning code. The woman said she’d never heard that phrase before.

Yet there the permit was, approved on Nov. 20 by an L&I clerk who reviewed the paperwork, made sure the taxes were current, collected a fee and checked a Google Maps image of the address before issuing it.

No one on the city’s end had ever actually visited the address, at least not until months later when the first floor was complete and someone complained to L&I about the setback, the permit examiner testified. That’s the usual procedure, the city said. Permit before, inspect after.

Should the property owner — who said that as a small-time developer, she’d relied on the city to tell her if her plans were in order — have known about the required setback? Should her architect, who drew up the plans? And should the city’s permit examiners rely on something more authoritative than a months-old photo on the Internet before green-lighting construction projects?

Whose mistake was this?

The city’s attorney, Andrew Ross, called it a miscommunication. The property owner, whose bank is threatening to cancel her mortgage on the property, is still awaiting a decision on her appeal, her attorney told me Thursday.

It wasn’t the first time in a couple of years of reporting for PlanPhilly that I’d heard this line of reasoning from L&I. It came up during the Chelten Plaza drama, when protesters tried to (unsuccessfully) to invalidate construction permits. It came up during the Germantown spite-blight case, when Tony Byrne hired “contractors” the city had trouble finding.

Don’t look at us, L&I says, we just issue permits based on the information in front of us, and make the assumption that the applicant is telling the truth.

That procedural assumption may have proved deadly six times over this week, as a fly-by-night demolition crew undertook a half-assed teardown on a block of run-down Market Street buildings. The property owner is a notorious blightlord, the demolition company owner a bankrupt tax delinquent, and the “crew” reportedly consisted of some dude with a sledgehammer swinging away at night.

But by God, those permits were all in order.

In this case, at least, an L&I inspector did visit the site, sort of.

Despite city records showing demolition permits issued the same day, to the same person, using the same demolition company, for 2134 and 2136 Market St., apparently the inspector decided they were two separate jobs. So the complaint about a dangerous demolition at 2134 Market was deemed unfounded because equipment hadn’t yet started tearing down the “Hoagie City” building just next door, city officials said at this morning’s press conference.

Another miscommunication, I guess.

Everyone may have followed procedure, it seems, but nobody used common sense. It’s the L&I way.

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com. 

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