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Philadelphia Lawmakers Call For Broad Changes In Demolition Practices

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Mike Dunn Mike Dunn
Mike Dunn is City Hall bureau chief for KYW Newsradio 1060. He covers...
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By Mike Dunn and Walt Hunter

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Philadelphia City Council today is calling for a sweeping overhaul of the way demolitions are carried out in the city.

A special investigatory committee of Council formed after last June’s fatal building collapse at 22nd and Market Streets (see related story) released its findings this morning.

The 70-page report from City Council’s Special Investigating Committee on Demolition Practices makes clear that the city imposes higher standards on its own demolitions than those carried out by contractors on privately owned buildings.  For example, contractors demolishing public buildings must submit a criminal background check and provide evidence of competency and experience.

According to the report, L&I demolition permits for privately owned buildings request no information about the competency or experience of the contractor.  Public building demolitions must have engineering surveys and site safety plans; no such documents are needed for private sector demolitions.

According to the Council committee, stopgap changes implemented by Mayor Nutter in the wake of the Market Street collapse eased some of this disparity.

But the committee members believe those changes do not go far enough to establish criteria for determining competency of contractors, and go too far in requiring that all demolition plans be reviewed by licensed engineers.

“There were two tiers of demolition,” Councilman Curtis Jones, chair of the investigating committee, said this morning, “publicly owned sites and privately owned sites. And there was an honor system (for private demolitions) that some unfortunate members of that community weren’t very honorable about.”

The report then goes on to list 71 specific recommendations on private-sector demolitions that the councilmembers say are essential to avoid future tragedies like the Market Street collapse. That tragedy, according to the report, “threatened to shake the faith of residents in the city’s ability to perform one of its most basic core functions: ensuring public safety.”

Among the recommendations:

  • Requiring an engineering survey “by a competent person” for buildings three or fewer stories in height.
  • Requiring an engineering survey by a licensed engineer who is registered with L&I for buildings taller than three stories.
  • Requiring a site-specific safety plan be submitted with each demolition permit application which would include precautions for a demolition impact zone “measured by the collapse or fall zone for full external demolitions.”
  • Requiring that an independent site safety manager be on site for buildings greater than three stories, for the duration of the demolition.
  • Require that all applications include a physical address for contractors; a PO box would not be sufficient.
  • Require that the property owner and the contractor of a private demolition sign all permits. This will ensure that so-called third-party “expeditors” cannot be the ones obtaining the permits, as was the case in the Market Street collapse.
  • Establish an identification system for contractors for easier identification of experience and safety compliance.
  • Establish a registration system for all site safety managers, showing evidence of completion of OSHA training.
  • Require that signage at construction and demolition sites include the contractor’s name, address, and telephone number, and instructions on how to convey complaints to the city.
  • The city should hire additional inspectors and application reviewers in order to implement these reforms.

Councilman Jones indicated that some of the remedial legislation will be introduced as soon as next week.

“We hope that these recommendations will lead to action — it’s not a book that sits on the shelf,” he said. “It would be a book that’s inculcated in our budget, in our public policy legislation.”

And Councilman James Kenney said today that contractors and building owners have to stop cutting corners on demolition projects.

“It’s dangerous, it’s complicated, and it’s not cheap. If you go on the cheapest price alone, you’re going to have these problems. And that’s what happened here.”

Responding to the report, the Nutter Administration issued an email stating in part: “The Administration cooperated with Council’s committee during the hearing process and in preparation of the report and looks forward to working with Council going forward.”

Six people died last June 5th when a building under demolition near 22nd and Market Streets fell onto a Salvation Army thrift store next door, trapping store workers and customers inside.

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