A sidewalk closure caused by construction near 15th and Ranstead

When your day job includes slapping citations on Philly’s active construction sites, you see some pretty memorable things. Just ask Fred Miami.

Over his three and a half years as a construction engineer for the Streets Department, the day that stands out most is when he happened upon a plumber digging a tunnel below a South Philly street. To connect pipes to a water main, the fellow had burrowed nearly all the way across the road — without a permit or any official notice. Cars, buses and pedestrians continued to travel overhead while he carved out the land beneath them.

“Needless to say we had to shut the street down, and we had to shut him down,” Miami recalled. “It’s just crazy stuff you see that you would never imagine people would do.”

Just another day in the life for the Right of Way Unit, the eight-person crew in charge of making Philly roads and sidewalks safe.

You could say the unit is overburdened. It has just six inspectors and two supervisors, who are tasked with the responsibility of inspecting 2,000 permitted construction projects — and countless more that don’t have proper documentation.

A neverending to-do list

The six inspectors handled nearly 15,000 work orders last year. Each person is assigned a region to inspect, encompassing just about 15 to 20 requests each day. These are a combination of 311 flags, reports from councilmembers and checkups on the active permits the department has issued.

When you report a missing manhole cover or blocked sidewalk, you tack an item onto their neverending to-do list.

“We write all the permits for closures in the right of way, whether it’s for construction, development, block parties, festivals,” unit head Pat Iffrig explained. “Those all trickle down to our inspectors eventually, who are responsible for going out and looking at things that we have permitted and not permitted.”

And while these workers are out filling your 311 requests, they often stumble upon even more unpermitted issues — which they have to turn into work orders and then go out and inspect all over again.

“A lot of the time the work creates more work,” Miami said. “We’ll find stuff in the field that we might not have known was taking place.”

Much of the work is concentrated in Center City — as anyone whose tried to stroll through Philly’s downtown well knows. With sidewalks and blocks closed down for construction every couple hundred feet, any bipedal journey within a 10-mile radius of City Hall requires constant street-crossing.

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Overloaded and understaffed

Right now, according to Miami, there are 4,600 requests waiting to be addressed in the Right of Way system.

In an ideal world, the Right of Way Unit would have more resources and inspectors to manage the mounting requests and permits. While Philly’s six inspectors stretch themselves thin to comb the city for violations, cities like Washington D.C. boast units that are four times the size.

Mayor Jim Kenney promised to resolve this issue during his first campaign, vowing that “nobody’s stealing sidewalks after 2016!

No big policy changes have been effected so far, but staff do report they’re excited about the department’s most recent upgrade — the new, interactive map that tracks all the street and sidewalk closure permits in the city.

“Sometimes it becomes robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Iffrig lamented. “But we’re working to develop new systems to better manage the workflow.”

When Miami shows up to inspect a request, he encounters a mix of relief and resentfulness from residents. But the work is important — especially now, with Philadelphia smack dab in the middle of a citywide development boom.

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There are more active construction sites than ever, and each requires an inspection.

“We try to do a lot with a little,” said Miami. “We manage.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...