lululemon

Why, every winter, Philly’s buildings start to fall apart

About two weeks ago, three 27-year-old women were shopping for headbands at Lululemon in Center City when the sky started falling. Well, the roof, at least. One of the women, hurt when bricks from a neighboring parapet crashed through the yoga store’s ceiling, told reporters she thought her life was over.

In the winter, these types of building collapses and partial collapses aren’t uncommon. And the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has struggled to deal with it. The agency can’t even keep tabs on the number of building collapses that have occurred.

Meanwhile, city politicians argue over what’s best for the chronically understaffed and underfunded commission: should it operate as a mega agency, or break into smaller ones? Experts say they just hope something changes soon for L&I and building owners — if nothing else, for the sake of the next person who may just be shopping in Center City for a headband.

How structures crumble

Robert Mongeluzzi is known as Mr. Collapse King. The Philadelphia attorney specializing in structural collapses (yes, Philadelphia needs this) is currently involved in three death cases related to the Market Street collapse and has represented victims in a number of other civil cases related to crumbling structures.

Mongeluzzi said buildings that fall, in whole or in part, do so during one of three phases of their lifespan:

  1. During construction
  2. During demolition
  3. During non-construction, meaning whatever fell apart was likely due to a lack of maintenance

Why’s it happen during winter? Well, look what happens to water — the physical change that occurs when H20 freezes and expands, and thaws and contracts wreaks havoc on aging brick and mortar construction; how many landlords or building owners are checking the condition of their brick facades and construction, and sealing accordingly? This is the most likely what caused the building next to Lululemon to crumble, sending 3,000 pounds of debris (literally a ton and a half of material) through the roof of the store.

“Anybody who has driven on roads in Pennsylvania and encountered a pothole has first-hand experience of this,” he said. “Mother Nature also attacks structures.”

However, Stephen Estrin, a contractor from Florida who has testified as an expert at a number of trials involving building collapses, said it’s not the cold weather that most often causes buildings to fall — it’s demolition taking place and being carried out by incompetent contractors without a plan.

And in Philadelphia, any collapsing structure easily serves as a grim reminder of the deadly Market Street building collapse in 2013 that took the lives of six and injured another 13.

“The key element is hiring the right contractor,” he said, adding that building owners often take the cheapest bid, not the one that understands the technology behind taking down a building in an urban center. “That’s the key to anything that you do: hiring the right contractor.”

And when it comes to liability, that building owner is going to be responsible for what happens to the building. The most common mistake made by owners, Mongeluzzi said, is simply not inspecting their own properties to search for deterioration.

On top of that, owners hiring cheap demo contractors in many cases hadn’t made sure a demolition safety plan was in place before construction workers began hacking away at a building. Now, the city requires a demolition safety plan (doesn’t that seem like a no-brainer?)

But before Market Street, it didn’t.

Why the city isn’t equipped to deal with it

It’s easy to pile on the Department of Licenses and Inspections when collapses happen. Was the building properly inspected? What inspector was supposed to be keeping tabs on it? Why didn’t the agency figure this would happen?

Glenn Corbett says the reasons are simple: The agency is chronically underfunded and understaffed. When Corbett chaired the Mayor’s Special Independent Commission to Evaluate the Department of Licenses and Inspections (put together after the Market Street incident), the agency’s 300 inspectors were asked to complete an average of 22 inspections a day — almost four inspections an hour over an 8-hour workday.

“That’s impossible,” he said. “You won’t get any inspection of any quality.”

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. In fact, the agency runs all media requests through Williams, the head of the agency. But not only was Williams unresponsive, L&I doesn’t make much data publicly available.

Even questions as simple as “how many buildings have collapsed in Philadelphia?” apparently can’t be answered, leaving questions open as to whether or not the problem is getting better or worse. Even more importantly, where is the next one going to occur?

“You could say the number of building collapses is the tip of the iceberg,” said David Thornburgh, CEO of government watchdog group Committee of 70. “But you want to understand what the whole iceberg looks like. Public agencies have a hard time collecting and transmitting and updating data. It’s not just L&I. It’s a combination of people issues and prioritization.”

How the agency is changing

A report released last month by a commission tasked with implementing recommendations made by Corbett’s group outlined changes for 2015 that would add another 83 employees and extra $13.9 million to L&I.

The report, created by a group charged by the Nutter administration, recommended that of the new employees, 35 would be new building inspectors and 10 would focus solely on vacant properties. These hires would bring help bring the number of inspections per person closer to six — the number widely recommended. The group also put a pricetag on it: $13.9 million.

Corbett called these steps “tremendous.” But the most important step, he says, is splitting L&I into two agencies: a Department of Buildings and a Department of Business Compliance.

Council President Darrell Clarke apparently saw it differently. A proposal put on the table by him that was recently sent back to committee would have instead distributed L&I’s responsibilities throughout a new Department of Planning and Development — essentially creating a new, mega agency. Though the proposal was sent back, Clarke reportedly still wants to get the proposal on the May ballot for a public vote.

Meanwhile, L&I remains overworked. Last week, Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass brought forth a proposal that would charge L&I with strictly regulating donation boxes so they’re not just dropped anywhere without being emptied.

It’s safe to say Corbett, who recommended the agency get smaller not larger, disagrees with putting more responsibility on L&I’s lap.

“Bringing in all sorts of other things and putting all that into one mega organization is just adding insult to injury,” he said. “It’s completely in the opposite direction from what we are proposing. Making it bigger is not making it better.”

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