Dangerous neighbors

Posted: June 13, 2013

WHAT A difference a few hours and a torrential rainstorm make.

At 1:30 p.m. Monday, I stood in front of 606-608 S. 8th St., a once-vacant lot being developed for housing. A reader had called to say he was worried about safety at the site, which sits between South and Kater streets and had been deeply excavated.

Obviously, the city is on tenterhooks since the deadly collapse last week of a partially razed building onto the Salvation Army thrift store. The heartbreak of that disaster is that the dangerous-looking work site at 22nd and Market had caught the attention of passers-by, but only one had thought to contact 3-1-1.

So the reader's call had a ring of "never again" to it.

I visited the 8th Street site and could see the excavated foundation on the south side of the site, which had partially filled with water from recent storms. Part of the 8th Street sidewalk had collapsed into the hole. So had one neighbor's back fence and - dangerously, it would seem - a utility pole, its wires still attached.

On the site's north side, a skinny, walled alley ran between the site and the back doors of a handful of South Street shops. But days of heavy rain had so eroded the dirt foundation beneath the alley - which by then looked like an unsupported shelf - it seemed only a matter of time before the alley slid into the hole.

"It could fall at any minute," Patty Tribuiani told me. She works at the Accent on Animals pet store at 804-808 South and let me peer out the shop's back door, which opens onto the alley. We gawked at the concrete, which had cracked and shifted. "We won't even let our pets out here."

Neighbor Matt Liebner, who rents an apartment next to the site, said he called 3-1-1 on Friday to report that a utility pole - its wires still attached - had crashed into the hole.

The 3-1-1 woman "didn't seem too concerned," Liebner said. "She told me to call Peco."

"We don't know what else to do," added local writer (and my friend) Stephen Fried, who lives a block from the site. "No one is against development. But this is just really dangerous."

Back at the office, as another pounding rain drenched the city, I tried and failed to reach Robert Volpe, whose company, Lily Development, had been issued work permits for the site. So I emailed Licenses and Inspections spokeswoman Maura Kennedy, described the site and asked whether L&I was aware of it.

Within minutes my phone rang. It was Fried.

"Well, it happened," he said. "The alley wall fell in."

The excavated pit had grown wider as the rain washed away more dirt, undermining the alley and potentially the buildings around it.

Back on 8th Street, I watched as cops and firefighters closed off the block and evacuated residents while neighbors milled around in frustration.

They had seen trouble coming. One had even called 3-1-1 - the way the mayor would like us to, when we see unsafe work-site conditions - and got no response, even when he told 3-1-1 that a wired utility pole had fallen into a pool of mud and water

What, pray tell, are citizens supposed to do - after they've done what they were supposed to do?

"Call 9-1-1," advises L&I's Kennedy. "We have someone on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If something looks unsafe, call 9-1-1. They'll call us. It's very direct."

So (forehead slap) why didn't the 3-1-1 operator do so?

L&I has cited Volpe, whose company is licensed and insured, for improperly shoring up the earthen wall. Kennedy said he also should have been actively pumping water out of the hole during the rainy stretch instead of letting it accumulate, which exacerbated the site's instability.

By yesterday morning, Volpe had trucked in dirt to stabilize the site but cannot resume work until a structural engineer gives the all clear. Neighbors and residents, though, were allowed to return to their homes and shops.

So all's well that ends well? Not at all.

The real-estate market is back on an upswing. Contractors are swinging hammers on every other block in a city known for homes that rely upon the support of the homes attached to them to hold everything all together.

It's a metaphor for urban living. When each of us stays strong, we improve the lot of those leaning on us. If one of us falls, we can take down those who had relied on us to take their well-being into consideration.

Accidents happen. But thoughtlessness - or negligence - is no accident.

Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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