Phila. Council opens hearings on building collapse

Councilmen James F. Kenney (left) and Curtis Jones Jr. Kenney said he hoped the Council hearing would shore up changes to buiilding-site procedures ordered by the Nutter administration.
Councilmen James F. Kenney (left) and Curtis Jones Jr. Kenney said he hoped the Council hearing would shore up changes to buiilding-site procedures ordered by the Nutter administration. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 21, 2013

Philadelphia City Council opened hearings Wednesday sparked by this month's fatal building collapse, but assiduously avoided any discussion of the disaster itself.

Instead, the hearing hewed closely to the changes promised by the Nutter administration in the days after six people were killed and 13 injured when an unsupported wall at a demolition site toppled onto a Salvation Army thrift store.

For more than two hours, Council members on a new investigative committee questioned top administration officials about the city's strictly enforced demolition practices for public buildings compared with the more lenient rules it applied to private projects.

That disparity was highlighted in Nutter's changes, issued in an executive order, and should be a major part of a report the committee has promised after four more hearings scheduled for this summer.

"That's what we're trying to get our arms around: what didn't happen, or should have happened," said Councilman James F. Kenney. "We hope our process will enhance the executive order."

Carlton Williams, commissioner of licenses and inspections, said the city maintained more stringent control and standards over demolitions of publicly owned building because, in essence, the city was the "project manager."

In private demolitions, such as the one that ended in the collapse, contractors assume the risk and are expected to comply with safety standards.

"But it's our responsibility at some point when we issue a permit to ensure a private contractor doing a private demolition is doing it safely," Kenney said. "To our own admission . . . we treat [public] demolitions with a higher standard of safety."

For instance, heavy equipment is not allowed in public demolitions when the buildings next door are occupied, but had been allowed at private job sites.

An excavator at the Market Street collapse site has been blamed for toppling a wall that fell onto the adjacent store. Nutter's order would bar use of such equipment on sites adjacent to occupied buildings..

The operator of the excavator has been charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter and other crimes after a toxicology test determined he had smoked marijuana.

Aside from that arrest, a search for blame in the collapse has swirled, with questions being asked about the actions of the contractor, the building owner, and city agencies responsible for overseeing the demolition. A slew of investigations, including a criminal one by a grand jury, are ongoing.

Among other changes, contractors now will be required to have a safety plan, detail their qualification, and protect neighboring buildings and passersby.

City inspectors will also be required to visit demolition sites every 15 days after a permit is issued, and inspectors will be required to respond to all complaints within 48 hours.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who also testified Wednesday, repeated an assertion he first made in 2006: that the Department of Licenses and Inspections has too few inspectors to effectively carry out its duties.

He recommended the department hire about 60 more inspectors. Next year's budget calls for hiring 20.

Butkovitz said he supported Nutter's changes.

"The issue is going to be not what's committed to on paper," he said, "but whether there's adequate numbers of people to complete the task."

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

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