L&i Using Law 'To Help People' Taking Aim On Nuisances

Posted: May 15, 1995

Strip joints. Stop 'n' go beer delis. Pawn shops. Check-cashing agencies.

For weeks, the agenda at the Board of Zoning Adjustment has become more crowded with challenges to these businesses.

It's no accident.

The city Department of Licenses and Inspections, partly in response to

pressure from civic and neighborhood groups, has gotten more interested in them.

It's responding to nuisance bars and citizens' complaints - and not because of any underlying philosophy, said Bennett Levin, L&I commissioner.

"It's solely an effort to use the law to help people."

Thus L&I - an agency known best in recent years for institutionalized weakness and corruption - has moved aggressively to change.

Along with strictly enforcing the law, the agency is trying to help preserve neighborhoods, spending close to $15 million annually on demolition, cleaning, sealing and other real estate services, Levin said.

For example, in the Fairhill section, that meant tearing down an abandoned restaurant and cleaning and sealing two others, which are slated for demolition. Around 3rd Street and Indiana Avenue, 18 houses are slated for demolition.

Levin likens L&I's fight against urban blight to battling disease:

"The cancer of abandoned buildings is the result of the decline of the neighborhoods and the desire of people to no longer live in those neighborhoods."

The agency is performing surgery to try to halt the abandonment. It's also giving chemotherapy by "looking to stablize the neighborhoods by removing nuisance uses.

"We hope the patient will survive all this. If we don't do anything about it, people will leave and leave. We'll just have more and more misery."

Levin said he continually gets letters from community groups and citizens about "nuisance uses" - and tries to respond.

L&I's efforts draw mixed reviews from neighborhood groups.

Wynnefield Residents Association president Glynnis Hill praised L&I because the City Avenue Pawn Shop Outlet, City Avenuenue near 50th Street, has not opened.

The group objected to the store, which also would offer check-cashing services. "They're not open," said Hill. "That's a testament to L&I."

But the Rev. Theodore Johnson, pastor of Harambe Baptist Church, Chew Avenue near Chelten in East Germantown, is upset that, despite L&I efforts, the C&C Deli across the street still sells alcoholic beverages.

"People are still hanging on the corner, most of them young," he said. ''I'm still picking up 40-ounce bottles in front of the church."

Judith Eden, who follows zoning for the Center City Residents' Association, complains that L&I left out critically important information from documents in its case against Bumpers Bar & Grill, on Sansom Street near 18th, which had

topless dancers. Noting that the zoning board relies on L&I-issued documents ''to be complete and accurate," she said, "in this case, they were seriously incomplete."

Also, she said, the agency has ignored complaints about large, internally illuminated signs on businesses on residential blocks.

And Spring Garden neighbors are split on their response to L&I's closing of an ice-cream vending window at Garden Fresh Produce, Fairmount Avenue near 23rd Street.

The agency has been adamant and persistent in keeping the window closed, said owner Doug Brantz. Brantz said the zoning code prevents a dispensing

window from operating in a residential neighborhood.

Some neighbors oppose the window. Others have signed the store's petition to reopen it.

In cases like these, Levin sees his agency's role as preserving the neighborhood and working for the city's future.

Residents who take the trouble to complain "have a deep-rooted desire to stay there. If we do these things to stabilize the community," then maybe $15 million gets saved in future years, he said.

If businesses are a "regulated use," and have a "very negative impact on people in these neighborhoods, we intend to strongly enforce the law," Levin added.

L&I's strict enforcement allows neighbors to come before the zoning board to make their views known, he added. "I really think for the first time we're enabling people in the neighborhood to come into the process."

He sees the success of that tactic as a matter of determination. For example, the zoning board has ordered some delis around the city to stop selling alcohol, but they continue to do so under court appeal. Said Levin: ''It will play out . . . as long as there is a firm commitment to see it through."

That commitment is different under Levin than before, when L&I was better known for weakness, corruption and inability to enforce codes than for responsiveness to neighborhoods.

* In 1991, Fire Commissioner Roger Ulshafer wanted enforcement of the fire code taken away from L&I because of "institutionalized" corruption within the department.

Ulshafer said then that L&I "can't be trusted" to conduct fire inspections of high-rise buildings. Inadequate pressure in standpipes at One Meridian Plaza hampered firefighting efforts and allowed the blaze to sweep through eight floors. Three firefighters died battling the blaze.

* Former District Attorney Ronald D. Castille recommended putting fire code enforcement in the Fire Department's hands after a 1988 grand jury report blasted L&I's inspection and enforcement procedures.

* In February 1991, four current or former L&I officials were charged with taking bribes from building contractors.

Levin realizes more tools are needed if L&I is to be more successful.

In the case of the stop 'n' gos and the strip joints, the new activism has required new state and local legislation. A City Council bill will help L&I take action against the delis, moving delis into the tougher business regulatory section of the city code instead of the zoning code - where, Levin said, "you can override cease orders rather easily."

There's also a bill sponsored by Councilman Michael Nutter that would give L&I more clout to regulate check cashing and pawn shops.

Said Levin of his efforts to help neighborhoods by strictly enforcing the law: "Most people are rational about these problems.

"They just want a little bit of help."

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