Philadelphia City Council members hope to make it tougher to get a demolition permit in the wake of a fatal building collapse.
Private building owners seeking demolition permits today don’t have to file demolition plans, prove their workers are qualified or show that their taxes are paid.
Council held a series of hearings in the wake of a June 5 building collapse, when six people died inside a Salvation Army thrift store because of a demolition accident next door.
With a criminal grand jury investigation underway, the panel agreed not to explore what went wrong at that site. The 70-page report issued Thursday therefore suggests a long list of safety checks and training programs.
Councilman James Kenney said the fact demolition contractor Griffin Campbell did not pay workers compensation or unemployment taxes should have been a window into his operation. His subcontractor, Sean Benschop, is charged with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly operating heavy equipment while high on marijuana and painkillers. Both men have criminal records.
“If you go on the cheapest price alone, you’re going to have these problems. And that’s what happened here,” Kenney said, referring to building owner Richard Basciano, who went with Campbell’s $130,000 bid when most bids were two to three times that price.
A YouTube video taken days before the collapse shows a machine with a claw being used to knock down the facade, and bricks raining down on the open sidewalk. There was also no scaffolding in place to remove an unsupported 40-foot brick wall, which tumbled onto the one-story thrift store, burying the six dead and 13 survivors.
Several lawsuits have been filed against Basciano, a commercial developer hoping to redevelop the block, along with Campbell, Benschop and others. The victims’ lawyers also accuse the city of lax oversight of the demolition process, but the city is generally immune from such lawsuits. One of the victims was the 24-year-old daughter of the city treasurer.
Council’s report also recommends that city agencies do more to share information, so that Department of Licenses & Inspections workers who issue permits can be sure contractors have paid their city taxes.
“If you’re not licensed, if you’re not qualified, if you’re not paying taxes, you don’t deserve a permit,” Kenney said.
But council members acknowledged they can only make laws, while Mayor Michael Nutter manages how agencies are run.
Asked why the report holds no individual or department accountable for the collapse, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who chaired the review committee, said, “That is not our department.”
However, he said he hopes for more cooperation with the mayor and city agencies in the wake of the crisis.
“Unfortunately, sometimes out of a crisis can come opportunity,” Jones said.
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