How Lax Are Philadelphia’s Demolition Processes?

Industry is a self-policed “open field,” says expert.

The demolition industry in Philadelphia is an “open field” of contractors, some good but some sloppy, overseen by a system of self-policing, according to expert testimony before City Council’s committee charged with inspecting the city’s demolition processes.

The third day of the Special Investigative Committee on Demolition Practices was intended to focus on interagency coordination in licensing and inspecting demolition projects in the city to prevent another 2136 Market St., which, given the rate at which “imminently dangerous” properties are demolished in the city (963 in the past two years), is an ongoing concern. But the primary point of interest turned out not to be how the Department of Revenue interacts with Licenses & Inspections (L&I) which interacts with the Streets Department; it was how those contractors themselves actually communicate with the city.

Demolition expert Alvin Davis, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542 with 36 years of demolition experience, detailed a demolition-inspection standard that relies less on government oversight and more on libertarian freedom-of-contract philosophy. The safety standards in place, he said, have thus far relied on the voluntary oversight of demolishers and their agreements with insurers and neighboring property owners.

When asked by Councilman Jim Kenney what the system of responsibility is for a contractor outside the agreements between the neighbors and property owners, Davis replied, “It’s nonexistent.”

“If a contractor doesn’t insist [on an inspection], it won’t be done,” Davis told the committee, which consisted of committee chair Curtis Jones, Jr., Jannie Blackwell, Bobby Henon and Kenney. Kenney asked if L&I at least “comes by to say hi.” Davis replied, “Sometimes.”

Additionally, no engineer surveys need to take place pre-demolition, said Drexel civil engineering professor Robert Brehm.

The committee introduced two possibilities to ensure that reckless contractors aren’t allowed to demolish buildings in the first place, and to make sure that even the good ones don’t do reckless stuff.

First, Kenney introduced the idea that the city might create a prequalification process similar to state requirements for public works, creating a list of qualified contractors for all demolition work in the city.

Second, Blackwell suggested a requirement that contractors hire independent inspectors who would be on the project throughout its duration — a feat the committee acknowledged was an unreasonable request of L&I or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that sets demolition standards.

L&I wasn’t present for today’s hearings because it is in the process of responding to questions from the previous hearing, Mark McDonald, the mayor’s spokesman, said in an email. He added that L&I is required to conduct two inspections (one before the demolition begins, and one when it’s done) and that the progress of demolitions is not monitored by L&I “because the process of demos/constructions is controlled by OSHA regulations.”