Review blasts developers' disrespect for Temple neighborhood

Alan Butkovitz : 5 agencies fall short.
Alan Butkovitz : 5 agencies fall short.
Posted: October 12, 2012

City Controller Alan Butkovitz on Wednesday blasted developers working near Temple University for cutting corners and criticized the Nutter administration for failing to police construction sites that have been vexing neighbors near the campus.

In a "special review" of off-campus construction, Butkovitz said builders had been illegally dumping debris in vacant lots, closing streets without a permit, and allowing dust to blanket the neighborhood and runoff to flow into the sewers.

He said five city departments - Licenses and Inspections, Water, Streets, Public Health, and Police - had fallen short on enforcing the city's rules for construction sites. The departments often didn't know which was supposed to patrol what activities, he said.

"North Philadelphia shouldn't be dumped on just because it's a poor, lower-income neighborhood," Butkovitz said. "We need to embrace revitalization, but we also need to ensure current residents aren't trampled in the process."

For years, the explosive growth around Temple has created tension between longtime residents and students, some of whom are prone to rowdy behavior.

Those tensions also extend to the builders of off-campus housing, and residents have been complaining for years that developers treat the neighborhood with disdain. Butkovitz said his review was sparked by those complaints.

William Moore, pastor of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church at 19th and Master Streets, said he had watched workers mixing cement on the sidewalk and letting the water run into the sewers and had seen builders giving cash payments to trash trucks to illegally haul away debris.

"I'm not antidevelopment," he said. "What I'm against is uncontrolled or unregulated development that destroys quality of life."

He said if L&I didn't have the staff to watch over the sites, then "you should slow down your permits."

Mark Zwick, president of the Temple Area Property Association (TAPA), an organization of about 45 landlords and developers, said his group agreed with Butkovitz's report and was committed to working with any agency "to see the area grow in a more professional manner."

"These are problems of growth, problems of people being irresponsible," he said. "It's better to have problems of growth rather than problems of neglect."

TAPA supported a move by Council President Darrell L. Clarke last year to create a neighborhood improvement district between Girard Avenue and West York Street, and between Broad Street and North 19th Street.

The district would have taxed only landlords, with the money going toward neighborhood services, such as cleaning up vacant lots. Zwick said the successful University City district was their model.

But the district idea was blocked by neighbors concerned that the proposed makeup of its board gave too much power to developers and Temple.

Clarke, whose Council district includes North Philadelphia and Temple, also praised the Butkovitz report Wednesday. He said that the neighborhood's problems, including irresponsible developers, remained unsolved and that residents often asked when he was going to propose the improvement district again.

"I expect to get engaged very shortly . . . and come up with a solution," he said. "What form that will take, I don't know yet.

Over the spring and summer, Butkovitz's investigators visited 19 sites, all within the boundaries of the proposed improvement district. Most of the projects have since been completed, and Butkovitz's office could identify only a handful of the developers, and none was named in the review.

The Nutter administration, in fact, responded that the language in the report was vague and that the examples of violations lacked specificity.

"It has the suggestion of being empirical, but you don't know the intensity of the problem," said Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman.

Butkovitz recommended the city create a memorandum of understanding among the five city agencies to provide guidance and authority for any inspector to address building-code violations. He also urged the city to develop a mobile app so any of the departments' employees could collect pictures and videos of violations and deposit them in a central location where each department could review the evidence.

McDonald said L&I's database was already available to other agencies and the public through its website. He said L&I hoped to replace that system in the next two years and to give inspectors handheld devices as part of the overhaul.

"It certainly would have been helpful had Mr. Butkovitz shared the report with us to give us the opportunity to respond," McDonald said. "Having said all that, the administration urges citizens to contact city government when they see problems."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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