Keeping watch over crumbling buildings

An employee from the City's License and Inspection Dept. points skyward on Walnut Street after a section of a building's decorative facade came tumbling to the street on June 3. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)


The death early Sunday of a Center City man who plunged through a fire tower railing at a low-rise apartment building was a tragic reminder of the deadly potential when buildings deteriorate.
City officials were smart to move quickly to clear other residents from the building at 264 S. 16th Street, where Steven Lee, 25, perished and a woman who also fell was injured critically. The building will remain closed until repairs are made, officials said.
Meanwhile, the city’s chief of emergency services at the Department of Licenses and Inspections, Scott Mulderig, has issued a well-warranted plea for all building owners to maintain their properties.
Even before the fatal plunge, the dangers of crumbling building facades had become evident.
On three occasions since June, chunks of several buildings rained down on sidewalks. The latest mishap occurred last week when a pair of masonry panels fell from the sixth floor of a building in the 1100 block of Chestnut Street. Fortunately, no one was injured in the 3 a.m. accident.
The city’s good luck also held on Aug 5, when bricks fell near 16th and Chestnut Streets, and also on June 3, when three sections of a marble façade dropped about 80 feet from the top of 1619 Walnut St.
Those accidents brought to mind an incident more than a decade ago when a Philadelphia judge, Berel Caesar, was fatally injured by falling debris on South Broad Street. Caesar, 69, was crushed by an estimated five tons of debris and a 500-pound sign that crashed near Pine Street. He died four days later.
Passers-by on the sidewalks of today’s bustling Center City are at just as great a risk. So it’s good to hear that City Councilmen Frank DiCicco and James F. Kenney plan to introduce legislation that would require exterior building maintenance and inspections by their owners.
Modeled after a New York City code, their proposal would require exterior inspections every five years for any building taller than five stories, with needed repairs conducted within 30 days.
Building engineers who conduct the inspections would have to report to the Licences and Inspections that a structure was given one of three possible ratings: safe, safe with a repair and maintenance program, or unsafe.
The key to these safety efforts, of course, will be vigilance on the part of City Hall in monitoring inspections and repairs. Even when the city orders repairs, the wheels of the bureaucracy can turn slowly. That’s why City Controller Alan Butkovitz has called on the city to be more proactive.
The DiCicco-Kenney safety measure would not apply to low-rise buildings like the one where Steven Lee fell, so vigilance by building owners and city inspectors will continue to be a matter of life and death when Philadelphia buildings begin to crumble.