‘It felt like an earthquake’: South Philly rowhouse collapse crushes two cars

Robert Crossett

Robert Crossett (right) stands on his porch on the 700 block of Mercy Street in South Philadelphia, overlooking the wreckage of two rowhouses that collapsed during construction and crushed his wife’s car. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Two vacant rowhouses on the 700 block of Mercy Street in South Philadelphia abruptly collapsed after numerous citations for dangerous conditions or illegal construction.

While at least one car belonging to a neighbor was damaged in the Tuesday afternoon collapse, there were no immediate reports of injuries. The collapsed buildings appear to be owned by suburban real estate developers and both properties have long histories of building code violations.

Karen Guss, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspection, said that a dilapidated three-story rowhouse at 719 Mercy Street was “under construction at the time of collapse” and that cracking in that property’s front walls spread to an adjacent building at 717 Mercy Street.

David Mostoller
David Mostoller was on the third floor of his South Philly rowhouse when two neighboring rowhouses collapsed. The properties were vacant and under construction. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

David Mostoller and his wife were home when both houses next door collapsed.

“All of a sudden we felt shaking and a lot of grumbling, it felt like an earthquake,” he said.

719 Mercy Street had attracted notice from city inspectors in the past, and L&I cited the owner multiple times for violations that include illegal construction. Last winter, the city slapped the project with a stop work order, but work appears to have recently restarted. A permit issued in June indicated forthcoming plans to renovate the structure and add a roof deck.

Mercy Street row homes collapse
A Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections official tapes off the area on the 700 block of Mercy Street, where two rowhouses under construction collapsed. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The property was owned by a holding company known as “719 Mercy Street LLC.” A deed record lists a Bucks County mailing address for the company, a home owned by Alex and Svetlana Milyansky since 1988.

Milyansky did not immediately return a request for comment. But an associated contractor with Eastern Consulting, who refused to give his name, contradicted the account from L&I. He stated that the neighboring structure had collapsed and taken down both buildings and insisted Milyansky had yet to restart construction.

The second structure, at 717 Mercy Street, was purchased by a shell company called “RBH LLC” for $100,000 in 2017. That company listed a Lambertville, New Jersey, mailing address on deed records for 717 Mercy Street — the home of Kevin Romano, owner of Squallco Development, which has worked on the nearby Bok Tech school overhaul.

City inspectors cited the company’s vacant property, at 717 Mercy Street, several times over the past year, L&I records show. L&I inspectors cited the vacant home most recently on July 16, for unsafe conditions.

But Romano insisted his crews were not working on the structure today.

“My understanding is we were not doing any work whatsoever in our building,” he said. “Apparently there was work going on next door.”

According to the Philadelphia Fire Department, no one was injured when the former homes collapsed.

Mercy Street rowhouses collapse
Two rowhouses under construction collapsed into the 700 block of Mercy Street. The properties were unoccupied and no injuries were reported. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

However, Robert Crossett, who lives across the street from the incident site, said falling brickwork crushed his wife’s car. Neighbors in the booming section of South Philadelphia had dealt with so-called “cowboy contractors” for years, he said.

“The city does not enforce the laws and regulations around construction that they need to,” he said. “Permits don’t go up, notice isn’t given to neighbors when construction is happening,” he said. “We call L&I all the time. It’s a backlog and you never really get a good response. The city needs to handle this kind of stuff a little bit better.”

He said about six homes on the block are currently under construction and that neighbors have complained to L&I repeatedly about unsafe conditions.

Guss said the remainder of properties would be demolished and cleaned later today and that gas and electricity were being shut off for the block as a safety precaution.

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