In-your-face At L&i Bennett Levin Is A Tough-talking Commissioner. He Wants To Change The Agency's Reputation Of Being Corrupt And Ineffective.

Posted: March 13, 1994

It's not yet 11 a.m., OK?

But Bennett Levin - Philadelphia's hard-charging, high-profile commissioner of Licenses and Inspections - has already had a long day.

He has attended a funeral, OK?

Been in a verbal thrust-and-parry with one of the historic-preservation crowd, whom he describes, along with environmentalists, as "people that live in a cornfield somewhere that affect people who live in North Philadelphia."

And he just lost a front tire to a particularly nasty pothole, OK?

Now in another city car, Levin - speaking rapid-fire Philly punctuated by the frequent "OK?" - is headed to Kingsessing to examine a pile of rubbish, the remains of two rowhouses that collapsed, killing a homeowner, two days earlier.

He's planning how to handle a television news crew waiting at the site. His advance intelligence indicates that the TV reporter may be hostile and might imply that L&I is somehow to blame for the collapse.

"How about . . . 'We are not the city's janitor?' " Levin asks his public-relations man, Tom McNally.

A sound bite is born.

Minutes later, Levin explains to the reporter that L&I cited one of the collapsed houses for a leaky roof and faulty drainage system but was unable to find the homeowner, so it declared the property abandoned.

Then this: "We're just not the city's janitor. We can't go in and make repairs."

It's all about image, OK?

About changing the way the public perceives Levin's much maligned department, long seen as a corrupt, molasses-slow anachronism with gears oiled only by political connections and palmed cash.

This straight-talking millionaire railroad buff and former engineer is changing that image.

Levin is adored in some city neighborhoods, revered by some who say he listens when nobody else at Broad and Market will. He says the way Philadelphia does its long-term planning is obsolete. He has brought in a bundle by enforcing existing laws.

And he is actually trying to make L&I user-friendly.

Levin's locomotivelike style has drawn criticism from business owners, who say privately that he cares only about the bottom line. One said Levin is right to enforce L&I regulations but that he is too heavy-handed.

And some city employees say Levin needs to readjust his private-sector orientation in order to be more effective as a public official.

Spend a day with him.

*

At 10 a.m., Levin is at a meeting of the Philadelphia Historical

Commission. He's an ex-officio member.

He is among 17 people sitting around a large table at City Hall. They are

discussing a South Street building that L&I condemned and declared imminently dangerous, allowing the owner to demolish it.

Milton Marks of the Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia wants L& I inspectors to check for violations of the Historic Preservation Ordinance during fire- and building-code inspections. Marks seems unconvinced that the South Street building was dangerous.

"I was out there and saw a lawyer for the (building) owner standing in the doorway of this supposedly dangerous building," Marks says.

"Sometimes, lawyers don't use great discretion," Levin snaps.

Marks stresses his point.

Levin slaps his hand on the table and says, "I think I talk English. I don't think you understood what I said."

He stalks out.

In the corridor, Levin bumps into Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who praises him for having cleaned and sealed crack dens in her district.

Levin accepts the butter, although he does not believe in clean-and-seal.

You seal a house, OK? Because union rules prevent crews from working on the second floor, addicts get in that way. You go back again and again before finally demolishing the house, OK? He would rather tear it down from the jump.

Walking from City Hall to his car on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Levin, still fuming over the Historical Commission set-to, strides quickly.

"That guy was grandstanding," he says of Marks. "Well, he ain't gonna grandstand on my back."

(Marks later says, "I'm sorry he feels I was grandstanding. I have no desire to do battle with the commissioner.")

In the car, driven by Robert D. Solvibile, his chief of contractual services, Levin laments the well-meaning preservationists and environmentalists who tie his hands.

Among the obstacles to attracting business, he says, are laws that make the current owner of a property liable for whatever was done to the property in the past if the previous owner cannot be found.

"Our poor neighborhoods are being impacted by legislative forces way beyond the city," Levin says. "If we don't create opportunities for development, and employment opportunities, in the neighborhoods, we're never going to break the chain, OK?

"We don't have the population we had. We have to say, 'This structure is going to be maintained; this structure is not going to be maintained.' We have to rethink the way city planning is done. . . .

"And, in view of the current demographics, housing, including inner-city housing, could probably be on a much less dense basis. I think that's a challenge the City Planning Commission has to work with."

Before Solvibile's encounter with the pothole, Levin displays a slightly earthy sense of humor.

"I've had my hands full with these strip joints," he says, a reference to L&I's requirement that topless dancers get business-privilege licenses.

Levin has Solvibile slow past some rowhouses. He points out one after another that shows signs of decay. He says the zoning laws need to be changed. A builder who wants to construct a single house along a row must get back- and side-yard variances that make no sense in a compacted urban area, he says.

He believes L&I has been shortsighted. Instead of demolishing one house at a time in decaying neighborhoods, the city should relocate holdouts and clear whole blocks, he says. That would leave space for parkland and urban gardens and larger parcels more attractive to developers.

Levin explains that he was born in Jersey City on Dec. 23, 1939, and raised in Philadelphia. He earned degrees in engineering and liberal arts from Penn State.

He worked in his father's electrical-contracting company for a couple of years, then started his own engineering firm. He runs through a long list of buildings he worked on, including Wanamaker House, the Hotel Hershey and 1500 Locust.

He had done well, had bought a place in Florida and was about to move there when the L&I job came along, he says.

So, was he interested because of past frustrations in dealing with L&I?

"Are you kidding?" he says. "It's a good thing I didn't have a gun."

He turns to McNally: "Can I say that? Is that OK?"

McNally assents, and Levin continues.

"Because of the attitude problem," he says. "People didn't perceive themselves as serving the public."

Levin is now at 30th Street Station, about to offer a tour of his meticulously restored, 1928-model rail car, the Pennsylvania 120. The rail car's parlor, now appointed in walnut, was used to carry Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's body from New York to Washington after the funeral in 1968.

Leaving the rail car, Levin drops Solvibile off, takes the wheel himself and sets off for a meeting of the Black Tavern Owners Association in North Philadelphia.

In a second-floor lounge at Sid Booker's Stinger's Lapointe Club, he tells 94 bar owners that L&I's primary mission is to make it easier to do business in Philadelphia. But businesses must do their part, he adds.

The year before Mayor Rendell appointed him, he says, "Forty percent of the business activity in this city was not making any contribution to the tax rolls." In his first year as commissioner, he says, L&I collected $7.5 million more in business fees. Only $2.5 million of that represented fee increases; the rest came from a crackdown on bootleg businesses, he says.

Levin tells the tavern owners that he has made it easier for them to get some licenses. They now can get some permits at regional offices, thus avoiding having to make a trip to Center City.

He tells them he is not trying to put people out of business, just trying to make it easier on everybody by making everybody do his part.

"I've been around this city a long time," Sidney Booker, executive director of the Black Tavern Owners Association, says later. "He's the best commissioner I've seen yet. He's a hands-on commissioner."

After the meeting, it's back down Broad Street and over to 13th Street and Glenwood Avenue, where Levin drives past the long-abandoned National Biscuit Factory. The gutted, eight-story warehouse, which takes up most of a 145,000- square-foot lot, looms like a large, unwanted guest over the adjacent Glenwood neighborhood.

The Rev. Clarence Hester, who heads the Glenwood Community Development Corp., said he tried for months to get somebody to do something about the building. Bodies were found there. It was a rat haven, a hangout for drug addicts, and a fire hazard.

Finally, he says, he invited Levin to a meeting.

"Without a doubt, I would say he is the most responsive person in the Rendell administration," Hester says. "He acts on things."

L&I is having the building demolished. Levin and Hester hope that some developer, lured by the expected opening of the Amtrak North Philadelphia Station nearby, will be attracted to the property.

Such projects represent a major goal of L&I under Levin. He wants to demolish about 700 vacant commercial and industrial buildings. He believes the city can recoup the $15 million to $20 million demolition costs by getting the vacant properties "into private hands and back on the tax rolls."

Levin drives back to Center City and meets with two vice presidents from First Fidelity Bank. L&I issues 198 different kinds of licenses. Some, like circus permits, are granted four or five times a year; others, for building or zoning, are issued 10,000 times a year. Levin wants to see whether fees for some permits can be paid with MAC or VISA cards.

Later, he rushes to two other meetings.

Still later, nearing 6:30 p.m., he is sitting with three or four staffers, preparing for a televised news conference.

He adjusts his tie.

"I look OK?" he asks.

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