Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Fire Trap in Germantown; At L&I, More Scandal And Neglect

By Ralph Cipriano

Three weeks ago at the request of a City Council member, Former L&I Commissioner Bennett Levin showed up to inspect the abandoned Germantown YWCA.

The century-old building on Germantown Avenue, declared imminently dangerous by L&I in 2012, is in sad shape. Some windows were boarded up with plywood, others were blown out. A rear brick wall was bowed, in danger of collapse. Inside, it got worse.

"I was shocked by what I saw," Levin, an engineer, wrote on a email chain that originates with Jim Foster, editor of Germantown's Independent Voice newspaper, and circulates to some 60 people. "Combustible trash that was at least two feet deep lined the first floor and the central stairwell to the second floor. The paper and other combustible trash that was strewn about made it nearly impossible to climb the stairs." The trash made it "absolutely a hazard to descend the stairs."

The conditions at the Germantown Y reminded Levin of the abandoned Kensington factory that went up in flames in 2012, killing two firefighters. The factory was the subject of a grand jury report last February that blasted L&I for failing to protect public safety. The grand jury faulted L&I for allowing the abandoned building owned by a couple of Brooklyn slumlords to suffer demolition by neglect, until the old factory became a "fire trap."

"This time you can't blame anybody from Brooklyn," Levin said in an interview about the condition of the Germantown Y. "It's no different than the conditions that were alleged to exist when the factory in Kensington burned down," Levin said. "It's a fire trap and if there's a fire in the building it could be a death trap if a fireman has to go in there. Why risk catastrophe?"

Who's the slumlord that owns the Germantown Y? The city of Philadelphia's Redevelopment Authority.

"Here we have a historically certified building of significant architectural merit that is owned by an agency of the City of Philadelphia," Levin wrote on the email chain. "Under the ownership of the city it has lapsed into a state of significant disrepair and structural distress."

At the time he inspected the building, Levin was accompanied by City Councilwoman Cindy Bass and an official from the Redevelopment Authority. Why, Levin wanted to know, has L&I allowed the fire hazard to continue?

Why didn't L&I order the RDA to clean up the structure, Levin wanted to know. And if the RDA wasn't going to do anything, why didn't L&I clean and seal the building, and bill the RDA for the work?

"All it would have taken," to abate a hazardous situation, Levin wrote, "was a dumpster and two laborers to remove the fire load."

Spokespersons for L&I and the RDA did not respond to requests for comment by email.

Last week, Levin attended a meeting at Councilwoman Bass's office scheduled to discuss the fate of the Germantown Y. The invited guests included Brian Abernathy, executive director of the RDA, and Carlton Williams, the L&I commissioner.

Abernathy showed up; Williams did not.

In his defense, Williams, however, was probably trying to cope with the latest scandal that has erupted in his department, thanks to the Inquirer, which we'll get to in a minute.

"Here you have a well-meaning and committed member of council trying to get to the bottom of a tangled web that was woven long before she arrived" at City Hall, Levin wrote. "Yet, both the RDA and L&I for some reason cannot abate an immediate hazard."

"If government cannot respond to an immediate hazard there is something very wrong," Levin wrote. "Where is the urgency?"

Levin was the star of City Council hearings held in August 2013 to debate the fate of L&I in the aftermath of a building collapse on Market Street in June 2013 that killed six, injured 13, and prompted an overburdened L&I inspector to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, the future of L&I has been up for political debate.

The City Council in October 2013 issued a 69-page report that recommended splitting L&I in two, and having the beleaguered department's employees report to two new bosses. The City Council proposed having all L&I licensing functions relating to revenue report to the city's finance department. And having all L&I functions relating to public safety report to the department of public safety.

Levin didn't think much of the report's suggestions, or the proposals by the mayor to fix L&I.

"Frankly, all of the studies and committees convened by Mayor Nutter to solve the so-called L&I problem are only papering over the problem," Levin wrote. "The lines of communication and responsibility are blurred and each successive reorganization of the government [all in violation of the city charter] has only further distanced the [L&I] Commissioner from the mayor by interjecting additional layers of management between him or her and the mayor."

So the politicians continue to debate while life safety remains at risk.

Regarding the Germantown Y, Levin wrote, "Clean out the building while you still have the chance and it is still standing!"

The Germantown Y assessed at $1.36 million on city property records has been the victim of bankruptcy, arson and vandalism.

Developer Ken Weinstein has proposed converting the Y into affordable housing for seniors. But the RDA, which solicited development plans for the Y, turned down that proposal after Councilwoman Bass objected, saying Germantown already has too much subsidized housing.

According to city records posted online, L&I inspectors cited the Germantown YWCA on April 26, 2010 for having an unsafe rear retaining wall. On May 25, 2011, L&I inspectors cited it again for floor and ceilings damaged by fire. On Nov. 18, 2011, the property was cited because fences were down; fences that were supposed to be repaired to "restrict access and maintain public safety."

On Jan. 5, 2012, L&I inspectors wrote up two more violations for third floor partitions, floors and ceilings all damaged by fire. All five violations filed by L&I inspectors since 2010 are listed as "not complied."

On Wednesday, the City Council is holding a hearing to debate the fate of yet another government proposal to reform L&I. This time, Council President Darrell Clarke has proposed restructuring city government to place the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Historical Commission and various functions of L&I and the Office of Housing and Community Development under a new Director of Planning and Development, who would be appointed by the mayor.

Clarke's plan would require a charter amendment that would require the approval of voters.

Levin has been asked to testify at the hearing. He says he'll speak against the proposal for the same reasons he opposed the City Council plan to split L&I. We don't need more bureaucrats and layers of bureaucracy, he said. They will only serve to increase the possibilities of inserting "political mischief" into the process of regulating public safety.

While the politicians propose new ways to reform L&I, the agency remains under fire.

Last month, a committee of city officials issued a report that said what's needed to fix L&I is 110 new inspectors, at a cost of $13.9 million.

An audit released last week by city Controller Alan Butkovitz, as reported in the Inquirer, says the department, which has 56 code inspectors, needs 136 to 156 inspectors.

The controller reviewed 5,700 privately owned vacant properties and found that 791 were listed as "open' violations, where problems remained unresolved. Of those properties, the controller said, 101 were classified as unsafe, hazardous or imminently dangerous. The controller criticized L&I for not being proactive.

There are also indications from the press that the latest reforms at L&I aren't working.

The Inquirer is working on a story about questionable recent building demolitions involving L&I. The full story hasn't even been published yet but already City Hall has thrown somebody under the bus.

In response to questions from the newspaper, the Nutter administration on Friday reassigned the second-in-command official at L&I, pending an investigation by the city Inspector General's office.

Scott Mulderig, L&I's director of emergency services, the unit that deals with demolitions, was reassigned while the city investigates his oversight of tough new demolition regulations" imposed after the Market Street collapse, the Inquirer reported.

In the story, the Inky reported that L&I Commissioner Williams sent out a memo to his staff, saying the newspaper's work "will impact our department in a very serious manner."

The story, however, originally scheduled to be published Sunday, has not run yet.

UPDATE: Council President Darrell Clarke has taken L&I out of his proposal to reorganize government. Former L&I Commissioner Levin subsequently declined an invitation to appear as a witness at the City Council hearings on Clarke's proposal, which would require a charter amendment.