Council panel recommends reforms in response to collapse

City Council President Darrell Clarke may be thinking of running for mayor... or not. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
City Council President Darrell Clarke may be thinking of running for mayor... or not. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 26, 2013

A City Council committee set up to study Philadelphia's demolition practices is recommending dozens of changes in regulations and enforcement to address the myriad safety issues that contributed to the deadly Center City building collapse in June.

"The Committee believes these reforms are both workable and essential if the City is to avoid future catastrophes," said the 69-page report, released by the five-member panel at a press conference Thursday morning.

Its 71 recommendations – all but a handful unanimous – include site-safety plans for every demolition project, safety training requirements for every worker on every demolition site, an independent site-safety manager monitoring the demolition of any building more than three stories high, an expanded inspection force at the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections, and a prominent role for the city Fire Department enforcing building and health codes.

The report says the city should reverse a recent practice of cross-training L&I inspectors to handle all sorts of construction issues and encourage individual inspectors to develop specialized expertise.

The public would have expanded access to demolition license and permit information on L&I's website, and be able to study site-safety plans, engineering studies and asbestos disclosures, among other documents, on neighborhood projects.

Six people died and 14 were injured June 5 when a four-story brick wall, part of a building under demolition at 2136 Market St., collapsed onto a Salvation Army thrift shop next door.

While that tragedy was widely publicized, the Council report noted three more demolition and construction incidents in the next two months: the failure of a retaining wall at a demolition site in Bella Vista, damaging four neighboring properties and displacing eight residents; a structural failure at a seven-story building under construction at 12th and Berks Sts. in North Philadelphia, injuring one worker and temporarily trapping five others, and the collapse of a vacant home at 36th Street and Fairmount Avenue in West Philadelphia, before a scheduled demolition had begun.

"Each of these project sites was permitted and inspected by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections," the report said. "The unavoidable conclusion was that the City's permitting and inspection process fell short of what was necessary to protect the public."

Council President Darrell Clarke proposed the creation of the special committee and appointed Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. to chair the probe. The other panel members were Jannie L. Blackwell, Bobby Henon, James F. Kenney and Maria D. Quinones-Sanchez.

The committee held five hearings in June, July and August, taking testimony from dozens of witnesses, including city officials, engineering and insurance experts, union safety officials and the general public. Its report – unusually comprehensive for a Council investigation – was written by Jones's chief counsel, Stacey J. Graham.

Its recommendations would require major changes in city regulations and ordinances. Council sources said five bills would be introduced to serve as vehicles for legislative action, but the details are still to be negotiated with the Nutter administration.

The committee itself was split on at least four of the 71 specific recommendations: proposals to establish a "worker identification system" to track contractors and their employees, the amount of training to be required for workers and license applicants, and a proposal to require all independent contractors involved in demolition projects to have a Philadelphia demolition license.

Throughout the Council hearings, organized labor representatives pushed for stronger identification of the contractors and employees on job sites. But some Council members worry that those proposals could undermine access to jobs in the construction industry.

The report said that further discussion and negotiations on those points would occur during the legislative process.


warnerb@phillynews.com

215-854-5885

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