Demolition continued at collapse site despite worries about danger

The site of the collapse at 22d and Market Streets. Extensive correspondence shows that the disputing property owners and the city knew of the potential danger.
The site of the collapse at 22d and Market Streets. Extensive correspondence shows that the disputing property owners and the city knew of the potential danger. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 15, 2013

In the weeks before the deadly Market Street collapse, the building's owner repeatedly warned top city officials and Salvation Army officials that the demolition could endanger the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store.

But that did not prompt the city to step in. Nor did it stop the owner from rapidly demolishing the building - with devastating consequences.

E-mails and letters reviewed by The Inquirer show repeated warnings about a possible collapse with potentially deadly results.

"This nonsense must end before someone is seriously injured or worse: those are headlines none of us want to see or read," wrote Thomas J. Simmonds Jr., property manager for the building's owner, in an e-mail to Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger on May 22. He was complaining about an impasse in negotiations with the Salvation Army, which he said created "a situation that poses a threat to life and limb."

That was 14 days before the June 5 collapse, in which an empty four-story building under demolition fell onto the adjacent thrift store.

Six people inside the store were killed. Thirteen were injured.

Correspondence reviewed by The Inquirer shows that STB Investments Corp., the owner of 2136-38 Market St., promised a safer demolition procedure than it actually used, and it pushed forward with the demolition despite its own warnings and still-unresolved negotiations with the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army was seeking assurances that demolition would not proceed until a legal agreement was reached about several issues, including protection for the thrift store roof, partial removal of a chimney on the thrift store, and repairs to the common wall and the sidewalk.

As late as June 4, the day before the collapse, a Salvation Army lawyer in Harrisburg continued to press for assurances from STB's lawyer that STB would protect the thrift store, unaware that two days earlier, STB's contractor had brought in heavy machinery to demolish the adjacent building.

In an e-mail June 4, Steven Nudel, the Salvation Army attorney, cited to Joel Oshtry, the STB attorney, a section of the city building code that sets forth requirements for "protection of adjoining property."

"Specifically note where it says that property shall be protected from damage during demolition," Nudel wrote. ". . . Please advise what procedures will be implemented to minimize vibration within the Salvation Army premises. There is concern that your work will cause damage to displayed items."

In letters May 15 and May 29, STB said it would use a demolition procedure that would "safeguard the interests of the public, the Salvation Army, and STB Corp. and allow the demolition to proceed without delay."

"The roof of 2140 Market Street [the thrift store] will be covered with a tarp and on top of the tarp plywood will be laid," STB attorney Oshtry wrote in the two letters to Nudel, the Harrisburg-based attorney for the Salvation Army. "This will protect the roof if any debris fall on the roof area."

Oshtry outlined a plan to use a boom truck that would park in the street or alley and extend a long metal arm with a large bucket in which workers would stand to demolish the building.

"The workers will be suspended over the roof and next to the wall to be demolished. Thus the worker will not be relying on 2140 Market Street or its roof for support," Oshtry wrote. "The worker will demolish the wall in a direction away from 2140 Market Street so that the wall is pushed out onto the 2138 Market Street parcel area."

Of course, that is not what happened.

STB's contractor, Griffin Campbell, proceeded with the demolition, using heavy machinery to try to take the building down, instead of doing it by hand.

On May 20, Campbell had assured a Salvation Army architect at the site that he would not go forward with the demolition until a legal agreement was reached, according to the architect's notes.

Architect Jack Higgins wrote in his notes of the site visit: "I told him [Campbell] that since the owners of 2136 had gotten an attorney involved that everything would need to go through attorneys now.

"I told him this would obviously take time and that he would need to be patient and not to proceed with the work until the attorneys had worked it out.

"Campbell responded that he is a very patient man.

"I left the property with the understanding that owners of 2136 and/or Demo contractor would make repairs for any damage caused to 2140 and that no demo work would occur until attorneys for both sides worked it all out."

Campbell was ordered to appear before an investigative grand jury last week. An attorney for Campbell, William Hobson, said Friday that Campbell did not appear because his lawyers told prosecutors that he would invoke the Fifth Amendment and refuse to testify.

Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, would not confirm that the grand jury had begun to issue subpoenas and call witnesses.

"The grand jury process is secret, and this office would never confirm nor deny any information on the proceedings," she said.

Hobson said he expected Campbell to be indicted, but he said Campbell had done nothing wrong.

"We're going to beat the charges," Hobson said. "Our client in no way caused this unfortunate occurrence."

He said Campbell had been demolishing the building "brick by brick," rather than using any heavy equipment.

When told by a reporter that a YouTube video showed an excavator ripping out the front of the building at 2136-38 Market St. days before the collapse, Hobson said he wanted to review the video with Campbell before commenting.

The correspondence reviewed by The Inquirer shows that STB asked city officials to intervene with the Salvation Army "to enable us to complete our demolition of the 2138 Market Street property in a professional, legal manner . . ." but there is no indication they did.

The correspondence also shows that Salvation Army officials were warned by STB that the demolition could threaten their thrift store at 2140 Market St., but they apparently took no action to keep their employees or customers out of harm's way.

Maj. Charles Deitrick, of the Salvation Army regional offices in West Nyack, N.Y., said Thursday that "at no time was the Salvation Army advised that heavy equipment, such as the excavator, was intended to be used to demolish the structure, or that if used, it posed any danger to the adjacent Salvation Army structure or its occupants."

STB, which had owned much of the 2100 block of Market Street since 1994, moved earlier this year to redevelop the block. On Feb. 1, it obtained a city permit to demolish its properties.

And it entered into negotiations with Salvation Army, with two goals. One was to acquire, by purchase or trade, the thrift store property. The other was to get Salvation Army permission for access to its property to cover the roof and make demolition easier.

Neither negotiation was moving fast enough to suit STB, according to correspondence reviewed by The Inquirer and interviews with people involved in the talks.

Such disputes are not unusual when demolition projects are planned, and demolition specialists questioned the decision to start work before STB and the Salvation Army had reached agreement on how the job would be handled.

Pat Creelman, of Robert Winzinger Inc., a major demolition company in Hainesport, N.J., said contractors typically are not called in until property disputes with neighboring owners are resolved.

"If the owners can't get along, you can't touch it," he said. "It should be handled before we get there."

Carl S. Mason, president and owner of Central Salvage Co. Inc., of Philadelphia, said he would not have accepted a job at the Market Street site with an unresolved dispute between the owner and the Salvation Army.

Lawyer Robert D. Lane, an adjunct professor at the Wharton School, said it was a developer's responsibility to work out disputes, which can drag on for years and involve financial settlements.

In the Market Street case, though, demolition proceeded closer and closer to the thrift store, even as balky negotiations continued between STB and the Salvation Army.

On May 9, STB's Simmonds sent an e-mail to Deitrick complaining that three months had elapsed without a response to an earlier request to discuss the demolition, and warning that a precarious chimney on the Salvation Army building could fall during demolition.

"To prevent any accidents and damage to your property from occurring, we would require access to your property (the roof) to temporarily install protection," Simmonds wrote.

The next day, May 10, STB and Salvation Army representatives joined in a conference call to discuss the demolition.

They drew up a plan that said lawyers for STB and the Salvation Army would seek to prepare an "access agreement" by the end of the next week.

"The parties will agree to work on [a] collaborative and neighborly basis to expedite the completion of a smooth demolition process," said a memo sent by an STB representative to the conference-call participants.

Deitrick, of the Salvation Army, responded in a May 10 e-mail that the Army was not committing itself to anything:

"We will work to meet our neighborly goals but at the same time protect our own investments. As stated no commitments are made at this point other than to work together in dialogue to proceed."

Simmonds pushed back in an e-mail minutes later, telling Deitrick that "2136-38 Market Street is nearly demolished and every minute that passes increases the liability exposure for all parties."

In a May 15 letter to the Salvation Army attorney, Oshtry warned that "the building at 2138 Market Street is in a state of partial demolition . . . and the longer it remains undemolished the greater the risks to the public and all property owners of an uncontrolled collapse of part or loose debris."

But the May 20 site visit by Higgins, the Salvation Army architect, showed that doors and windows had been removed but that "no further exterior demolition was taking place."

In a May 22 e-mail to Deputy Mayor Greenberger, STB's Simmonds described "a situation that poses a threat to life and limb solely caused by Salvation Army's flagrant disregard for either my or my attorney's communications."

As deputy mayor for economic development, Greenberger oversees several city departments, including Licenses and Inspections, which is supposed to regulate construction and demolition work.

"Is there anything at all you can do," Simmonds asked Greenberger, "to enable us to complete our demolition of the 2138 Market Street property in a professional, legal manner without having to deal with such unprofessional - and clearly uncaring - people who claim to be on a charitable mission? The job would have been completed last week if they cooperated with us as requested."

"This nonsense must end before someone is seriously injured or worse: those are headlines none of us want to see or read."

Simmonds misspelled Greenberger's e-mail address, so it's unclear whether the warning ever arrived. But Simmonds also sent a copy to Greenberger's top development aide, John Mondlak, so the message likely got through to someone in the office.

Asked how Greenberger dealt with the situation, Nutter administration spokesman Mark McDonald provided a brief statement: "Deputy Mayor Greenberger was in contact with the parties and urged them to sit down and work out their differences in order to ensure a safe demolition. He was later informed that the parties would in fact meet."

McDonald said he did not know if Greenberger had alerted L&I to a potential problem at the site.

Asked if Mayor Nutter thought the city had handled the situation properly, McDonald said: "The mayor's view is that the two property owners should have sat down and worked things out. It was a private demolition, a private activity, and they should have resolved their differences."

Peter A. Greiner, an attorney for owner Richard Basciano and other STB officials, said neither Simmonds nor STB would comment because of pending litigation over the collapse.

Eric Weiss, an attorney for the Salvation Army, disputed STB's contention that the Salvation Army would not permit access to the thrift store.

"Of course we were going to let them do that," Weiss said Friday. "That's a red herring. It's absolute nonsense. We were looking for an overall agreement . . . for assurance of what they're going to do on four basic issues [to reduce the chimney, seal the roof, seal the common wall, and repair any demolition damage]. All we were saying is: 'Give us an answer, please. What are you going to do?' And they never did."

A May 22 letter from Salvation Army attorney Nudel to STB attorney Oshtry said: "I . . . need your confirmation that the only access onto 2140 is to place the protective layer on the roof and clean up periodically. No equipment or personnel will be stationed on 2140.

". . . Access will need to be coordinated with Maj. [John] Cranford [at the thrift store] to ensure your timing has a minimal disruption to their business."

The Market Street collapse has led to manslaughter charges against Sean Benschop, a heavy-equipment operator at the site, a grand jury inquiry, and civil lawsuits against demolition contractor Campbell, owner Basciano, architect and expediter Plato Marinakos, and the Salvation Army.

The efforts to fix civil blame and criminal culpability will likely continue for years.

Temple University law professor Edward D. Ohlbaum said the issue the grand jury will consider is whether there was a negligent disregard of dangerous circumstances.

"The Salvation Army doesn't seem to be facing criminal exposure," he said. "Nobody died because a building was standing."

Ohlbaum said STB, faced with a reluctant Salvation Army, could have gone to court to try convince a judge that the building endangered the public.

He said STB could not successfully argue that it was the Salvation Army's fault that the demolition was botched.

The owner cannot claim that "I had to do a substandard job . . . because I could not get the cooperation of the Salvation Army," Ohlbaum said.

Disputes with neighbors are routine for developers.

Lane, a lawyer and adjunct professor at the Wharton School, said prudent developers try to make peace with owners of adjacent property.

"If you are knocking down the office next to my home, you're going to say, 'I will mitigate the inconvenience and noise for you,' " said Lane, who is also chairman of the Center City Development Corp.

He said the developer has "a whole toolbox, from back scratching to writing a check," to persuade neighbors to cooperate.

"It's infuriating. It's frustrating. These things can go on for weeks and weeks and weeks," Lane said. "If it was an easy business, everyone would be doing it."

As an extreme example of the frustrating conflicts developers can face, Lane cited the case of a client whose expansion project was delayed for more than 15 years because of a disagreement with a neighboring property owner.

Thomas L. Lussenhop, of Philadelphia's U3 Ventures development firm, said the owner of a property adjacent to a demolition site "is not required to cooperate with a developer in any way. . . . I can't think of any reason why any owner of an adjoining property would have to lift a finger."

Lussenhop, the University of Pennsylvania's managing director for institutional real estate in the 1990s, said developers sometimes offer attractive incentives to neighboring property owners.

"A responsible developer will go and say, 'Will you please cooperate with me? Here's $25,000,' " he said, adding, "You've got to just roll up your sleeves and get out the checkbook."

Before a major demolition, developers generally do extensive research because errors can be costly.

He cited a project in New York next to Carnegie Hall in which a surveyor failed to properly account for an existing chimney. The mistake led to delays, a major redesign, and more than a year of litigation.

"Good developers are not short-tempered," he said, stressing that they can face delays and complications before a major building is completed. "He will have a Plan A, and B, and C."


>Inquirer.com

View footage of the demolition posted to YouTube, showing the work being done three days before the building collapsed. www.inquirer.com/hoagiecity

For more coverage of the building collapse, go to www.inquirer.com/collapse 


Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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