by Jay A. McCalla
I resist declaring “our long, national nightmare is over” – ala Gerald Ford – because I retain serious concerns about the myopic focus of the many investigations into the collapse of a four-story wall onto the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market streets, back on June 5, 2013.
With victims awarded a total of $227 million, the six deaths and 13 injuries are now reconciled on the ledgers of insurance companies. Guilt has been apportioned to the various defendants and checks will be written. The summer carnage that splashed globally is now neatly summed up in a folder marked “Case Closed.”
Like most, I was captivated and shocked by the news of the collapse. I watched with interest as Mayor Michael Nutter advised reporters the demolition activity had been properly permitted by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. What happened next sharply piqued my interest. A follow-up question concerning the inspection history of the site, was met with a “dodge” by the mayor. He said he didn’t want to get ahead of any inquiry and promised a full investigation.
As a former Deputy Managing Director who oversaw a large-scale demolition program, I can tell you L&I’s record keeping isn’t complicated. The same folder that contained the information about the site having been properly permitted also contained the inspection history. So, why didn’t the mayor just answer the question? He didn’t answer because his response would have been incendiary, at least. The truth was the City of Philadelphia had NEVER inspected the complicated, sketchy demolition site.
We know there was no inspection because the city inspector assigned to the project admitted – in his suicide note – he had never visited the site. The obvious and unanswered question is “why not?” What were the pressures that mounted to cause the inspector – a father and husband – to take his life after the collapse?
It was well-reported in the media that citizens telephoned L&I to report safety-related complaints about the demolition site. What happened to those calls? Why didn’t they translate into a site visit? Why didn’t the inspector’s supervisor demand reports on this very high-profile project?
Despite months of separate investigations by both City Council and Nutter’s “blue-ribbon” panel, the above questions were never asked. Therefore, they linger.
Politically connected developer Richard Basciano had proposed an elaborate project that was among the most visible in the city, given its 22nd and Market location. Basciano wasn’t shy. He sought and received permission to acquire the adjacent firehouse. Imagine the political clout required to obtain an active firehouse.
This was a big-money project that had the rapt attention of the highest levels of government. Simply disposing of the firehouse required the consent of the Fire Commissioner, Public Property Commissioner, City Council and Council President Darrell Clarke, in whose district this was all taking place.
All of this activity took place with the political backdrop of both Clarke and Nutter haranguing L&I to be “developer friendly.” To the detriment of its independence, Nutter — early in his first term — placed L&I under the direction of his Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, whose job it was to keep developers happy.
While there is plenty of guilt to go around, I’m struck and disappointed the City of Philadelphia escaped its fair share.
As I testified before City Council’s special investigative committee, the dangerous incompetence of the demolition crew would have been immediately apparent on Day 1. There was plenty of time and opportunity to prevent the disaster.
Safe demolition demands the removal of the entire fourth floor, then the entire third floor and so on until the building is gone. These crews removed three sides of the building, leaving a free-standing, four-story, rickety wall. That wall was going to collapse. Period.
The developer and the Salvation Army shouldn’t have had to debate about danger. L&I has “police powers” and could have ordered the thrift store closed during the demolition. But, they couldn’t act to protect the staff and customers of the store without also shutting down the nasty demo activity that presented the danger. Shutting down demo activity – even if it’s “nasty” – might not be seen as “developer friendly.”
So, here we sit. Five years have passed, multiple investigations have concluded and almost a quarter of a billion dollars will be dispensed. Some lives were ended while others were ruined. For me, the most galling part is the utter and cowardly avoidance of responsibility by the one government agency that could have prevented it all – Licenses and Inspections.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.