Complaints of overnight construction at H&M fall on deaf ears

Posted: March 20, 2014

ON ITS website, H&M tells potential hires how much they'll be treasured by the behemoth company.

"It's important that you feel appreciated and treated well in every way," the Swedish low-priced, high-style fashion retailer assures those who join its 105,000-plus global workforce (whose benefits package is so rich, it even includes pet insurance). "In the long run it's your well-being that is the key to our success."

If only the company's construction people cared as deeply about the well-being of H&M's neighbors.

Since early January, contractors have been renovating H&M's store at 1530 Chestnut St. The work happens around the clock, which is not against the law. What's plain ignorant, however, is the amount of noise that contractors are making overnight with no regard for neighbors trying to sleep.

Nonemergency construction noise in the city is permitted between only 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays and between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekends. At the H&M store, though, the ear-piercing scrape of metal on metal and the clunking dump of debris happens throughout the wee hours.

"They wheel in a giant metal dumpster almost every night and load it sometimes until 4 a.m. and then start again around 6 a.m. when I've just begun to sleep," says Ivan Valentine, who lives with his wife in a six-floor apartment building across the street from the racket (and next to - get this - Insomnia Cookies). "I have lost so much sleep that I had to call in sick to work one day so I could rest."

Valentine, who has posted videos of the bang-and-clatter on YouTube (see them at ph.ly/HMracket), says the noise happens more often than he has been able to document with his cellphone.

Understandable, given that Valentine has more important things on his mind at 3 a.m. - like how to fall back to sleep.

The city does not actively monitor work site noise levels. It's up to residents to call the after-hours noise hot line (answered by Air Management and overseen by the Health Department) to report possible violations, then wait for a worker to take a sound-level reading.

So a resident has to work awfully hard to rein in a serial noise offender.

Valentine says he called Air Management multiple times. Twice, the noise had abated by the time a worker arrived. Once, on Jan. 9, a worker was able to take a reading, which indicated a violation of the city's noise code, resulting in a $300 fine.

"The worker told me the violation would be received by the company within five days," he says. "Five days!"

I've got bad news for Valentine. City Hall spokesman Mark McDonald told me the department's timeline is actually 30 days. But the notice to H&M wasn't sent until Monday - 67 days after the fact. McDonald blames the delay on a backlog and says Air Management plans a follow-up investigation this week.

Coincidentally (I'm sure), the notice was sent on the very day I called City Hall to inquire about it. Presumably, H&M will pass it along to whatever worker was making the noise the night of the violation.

Not that H&M can't afford the fine. The company, worth more than $70 billion, probably spends $300 daily on Splenda packets for the morning coffee of its 66 global press officers.

Speaking of which, the put-upon manager at H&M's Chestnut Street store referred me to the company's U.S. press officer, Nicole Christie. But Christie didn't respond to my many calls and emails about the construction din or what her wealthy employer might do about it.

Perhaps she was too busy filling out pet-insurance forms.

Nor would a construction worker named Butch tell me the name of the general contractor overseeing the work. So I couldn't tell, when reviewing the work permits issued by Licenses and Inspections to multiple contractors on the H&M site, who would be in the best position to address the concerns of sleep-deprived neighbors.

What is clear is that nobody associated with H&M's obnoxious construction gives a damn about Valentine or the 16 residents of his building who signed a petition asking for help.

Valentine submitted the petition to City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson's office, whose people were friendly and sympathetic but powerless, apparently, to stop the noise.

The residents' complaints might carry more weight if they'd known about the construction project before the first hammer was swung. But no one from H&M reached out to the Center City Residents' Association beforehand, the way developers routinely do on projects larger than H&M's. That's because the H&M job didn't require any zoning variances - so neighbor input wasn't necessary, says Chuck Goodwin, the association's vice president of government relations.

"When a variance is needed, we have leverage to negotiate agreements beforehand" to mitigate the impact of construction on quality-of-life issues such as parking, noise, dust, street closures and the like.

Since H&M's work required no variances, why give a crap about the neighbors?

Which just isn't right.

How hard would it be for H&M's manager, when I alerted him to the issue, to have done something more proactive than refer me to his company's press officer? Like offer to meet face-to-face with residents, to offer an apology and a promise to talk to contractors about the noise?

People like Valentine are reasonable. Like Philly's growing number of Center City residents, they know that living in the downtown requires flexibility. But it has to go both ways. H&M shouldn't be able to buy its way out of thoughtlessness, just because it can.

"I'm tired of fighting a battle I can't win," Valentine says.

He then recounts the conversation he had with the driver of a construction truck that idled for hours beneath his apartment window, spewing diesel fumes into the nighttime air.

"I'd called 9-1-1 to complain about the truck," says Valentine, who videotaped the vehicle. "I thought maybe [police] would enforce the noise law. But the driver said the cop came by and said, 'If people don't want noise, they shouldn't live downtown.' Then he drove away."


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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