Crumbling and stumbling: L&I says it doesn't know how many buildings have collapsed in Philly

Posted: March 07, 2014

THE PROBLEM isn't new in Philadelphia, but at 10:43 a.m. June 5, 2013, it turned deadly.

A brick wall crashed onto a Salvation Army thrift store during a botched demolition in Center City. Nineteen people were inside. Six died, including the 24-year-old daughter of City Treasurer Nancy Winkler. A Ukrainian immigrant who was pulled from the rubble after 13 hours lost both of her legs.

Two months later, a house in Mantua collapsed, forcing the evacuation of a group home for people with disabilities.

In September, a vacant South Philadelphia rowhouse partially collapsed, displacing two residents on either side. Three weeks later, a West Philadelphia home gave way.

At least four buildings unexpectedly collapsed last month alone - two on the same day. Falling debris from an East Germantown building endangered two pedestrians.

"It was definitely unsafe," neighbor Walter Johnson said of the abandoned dentist's office on Ogontz Avenue that came tumbling down Feb. 23. "I wouldn't even walk past that building, because it was breaking."

The city's Department of Licenses and Inspections received a complaint in 2010 of possible unsafe conditions there, but an L&I inspector determined that no action was necessary. The property is owned by a tax deadbeat who has ignored L&I violations for trash and other issues.

"It was going sideways," said Manny Sanchez, who works at Medina Grocery across the street from the site.

These collapses made the news, from national headlines to local blurbs. But they raise larger questions: How many other buildings have collapsed in Philadelphia? Which neighborhoods are most affected? How big is the problem? Is it getting better or worse?

L&I apparently doesn't know.

As a blue-ribbon commission investigates L&I in the wake of last year's fatal collapse on Market Street, the beleaguered agency said this week that it cannot determine how many buildings have collapsed in recent years because the descriptions of the incidents to which its staffers respond are buried in an unsearchable database.

For three months, the Daily News has tried to obtain a list of building collapses going back five years. On Dec. 2, Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, told the newspaper to file a formal Right-to-Know request. Five weeks later, a city lawyer denied the request, saying that the records do not exist and that the city is not required to compile or organize records in response to a request.

When the Daily News appealed the ruling to the state Office of Open Records in January, the city produced affidavits from a Nutter staffer and an assistant to L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams stating that the city doesn't maintain a list of building collapses, but that such records could "exist under another spelling, another name, or under another classification."

On Monday, three months after the Daily News' initial records request, L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson acknowledged that the agency does maintain records of building collapses. But, she said, L&I categorizes unsafe or imminently dangerous properties by violation, not by the cause of the violation, such as a full or partial collapse.

"Our focus is the public-safety risk presented by the particular property, not the underlying cause of what made it a risk," Swanson said. "While there are notes in the system regarding the underlying cause, those are not searchable and not retrievable."

L&I or KGB?

It's a perplexing scenario for a department whose website proclaims it "one of the nation's most innovative government agencies." Is it possible that the arm of city government charged with preventing structural catastrophes and holding Philadelphia together can't see where it's falling apart?

Former L&I Commissioner Bennett Levin, who ran the department in the mid-1990s when Ed Rendell was mayor, said he doubts that L&I is unable to produce records of building collapses.

"If they are not giving that information to you, they are just bulls----ing you," Levin said. "You're dealing with the KGB.

"We kept records of not only buildings that have collapsed, but buildings that were identified as imminently dangerous," Levin said of his tenure at L&I. "Once a building collapsed, you had an incident and there was an inventory of that."

Fire Department Capt. Clifford Gilliam said that firefighters respond to 9-1-1 calls for collapsed buildings, but that L&I keeps the records.

"They would be the ones," Gilliam said. "If we get there, we request L&I. That's their jurisdiction and responsibility."

City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who has locked horns with L&I since the Market Street tragedy, said the agency has been reluctant to produce some records, despite the Nutter administration's proclaimed commitment to government transparency. Butkovitz said his office had to subpoena L&I in September because it had refused to hand over information about building inspections.

"At the last minute, they agreed to give us access to their database," said Butkovitz, who is conducting an audit of L&I. "Not surprisingly, the information that was yielded from the database doesn't really support their initial contentions."

The Nutter administration has a reputation for clamping down on certain public information. Butkovitz, a potential mayoral candidate in 2015, said it's troubling that L&I will not - or cannot - produce records of building collapses. But he's not necessarily surprised.

"This is a recurrent pattern by this administration. They've made it more difficult than ever to try to determine what's going on, in particular with L&I issues and demolition issues," Butkovitz said. "Everything subsequent to the building collapse at 22nd and Market has been an extraordinarily sensitive issue."

'We have responded'

McDonald said Butkovitz's assessment isn't accurate.

"We have responded quickly and fully to requests and queries from the grand-jury investigation and City Council's Special Investigating Committee to the Inspector General, the city controller and the Special Independent Advisory Commission," McDonald said yesterday. "We also have responded to thousands of media requests for information."

Andrew Thompson, a freelance journalist and contributor to Philadelphia magazine, was one of those requesters. He said he asked L&I last year how many buildings had collapsed in 10 years.

"I just wanted the data to analyze on my own, but I got all this pushback," Thompson said.

After weeks of emails and postponed appointments, Thompson said, he walked away emptyhanded. He said that Swanson had agreed to help him craft a data request using agency-specific wording that would pry the information loose, but that she later cut him off, apparently after he'd written a story that was critical of L&I.

"Without knowing what L&I's own language is, you would have to file a Right-to-Know request to figure out the language, then file a follow-up Right-to-Know request," Thompson said.

In an article that appeared in November, Thompson wrote about his struggle with L&I. He wrote that Swanson had told him he wasn't the first person to request the information, and quoted her as saying, "Market Street wasn't a building collapse. Why do you even want this data?"

Swanson said this week that Thompson's assertions were false.

Report due July 1

Peter Vaira, executive director of the special commission that Nutter appointed to investigate L&I, declined to comment on the status of the probe, other than to say that collapses are on his radar. The commission's report is due by July 1.

"We are well aware of the building collapses in the city of Philadelphia," said Vaira, a former U.S. attorney who helped prosecute the Abscam case. "That subject is in our charge to investigate, and we are doing so."

The upside is that L&I's record-keeping abilities are about to improve.

The department is implementing a paperless data system, expected to be fully operational by the end of 2015. Project eCLIPSE (electronic Commercial Licensing, Inspection and Permit Services Enterprise) will enable online permitting and licensing and will improve data-reporting and data-sharing capabilities.

"In order to bring Philadelphia into the modern age, we have to be a modern government," Nutter said when announcing the project in January.

Lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi, who has filed eight lawsuits on behalf of the Market Street collapse victims, said L&I has taken important steps to prevent another fatal collapse, such as requiring contractors to submit a safety plan before beginning demolition. Better data collection also could help, he said.

"Any time a building collapses, that should go to a central location. Are they occurring in the same area? What did we find when we went out there?" Mongeluzzi said. "Once you start keeping records, it gives you the ability to spot trends and to analyze it and see if you can make things safer."


On Twitter: @wbender99

Blog: ph.ly/DailyDelco

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