With a report that has exposed developers cutting corners as they renovate buildings around Temple University’s North Philadelphia campus, City Controller Alan Butkovitz has lifted a rock on shoddy construction practices that jack up city costs while shortchanging taxpayers and forcing neighborhoods to unnecessarily contend with additional rubble, dirt, and dust.
In one sense, any concern arising from development is a good problem to have. It’s certainly preferable to a lack of construction activity along blocks and blocks of low-income neighborhoods.
But while Butkovitz knows as much as anyone about the city’s need to grow — given its dire fiscal situation — he’s nonetheless right that the city doesn’t need “uncontrolled or unregulated development that destroys quality of life.”
Even though the contractor jobs Butkovitz reviewed tend to be small-scale — while most major projects in the city are done according to standards — the city loses out when any contractor fails to meet wage, licensing, or other requirements designed to minimize disruption near a building site, keep workers safe, and stock city coffers.
As for neighbors who are forced to play unwitting host to contractors skirting the rules, they’re often saddled with the hassle, disruption, and damage from heavy construction equipment that leaves behind crumbling pavements.
Given that the controller’s recent review of 19 job sites in a swath of the city along North Broad Street found evidence that developers were dumping construction debris, blocking streets, and failing to stem the dust and illegal water runoff that clog city storm drains, Butkovitz has done a service by highlighting what seems to be a systemic problem.
Cracking down on such abuses, Butkovitz believes, will take greater cooperation by five city departments — Licenses and Inspections, Water, Streets, Health, and Police.
With other demands on these agencies, that’s a tall order. But it’s at least a hopeful sign that Mayor Nutter recently ordered an increase in L&I inspections in the area. The city also has put together a task force to review construction practices in central North Philadelphia, and plans to equip inspectors with handheld devices to track problems. City Council is looking at possible steps to enhance regulation.
The city’s renewed push on inspections has resulted in 742 permit inspections since mid-September, with 18 violations found. The reviews covered a dozen census tracts, but there are more than 500 construction sites across the city. So Nutter aides are right that the best way to help focus city oversight is through citizen complaints on problem job sites, either to the city’s 311 call center or via the new, handheld apps that track complaints.
Butkovitz’ findings offer fresh perspective on the perennial debate over higher construction costs on all-union jobs. Given the controller’s assumption that many of the problem sites he reviewed are nonunion, it’s clear that the city needs to do more to assure that the playing field is level — and that all contractors, union or not, comply with the rules.
In the meantime, residents around Temple certainly deserve every effort by the city to spare them from choking on dust and dirt as the price of progress.