Friday, November 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

City Howl Help Desk: The Society Hill slabs mystery

ONE EVENING in Society Hill, on his daily jog, Brian Hamilton came across a ridiculous number of concrete slabs. The mother lode, if you will. Hundreds of the slabs, along with bundles of bricks and haphazardly placed wooden beams, lined Front Street near Walnut, taking up the equivalent of about half a city block.

City Howl Help Desk: The Society Hill slabs mystery

Juliana Reyes

ONE EVENING in Society Hill, on his daily jog, Brian Hamilton came across a ridiculous number of concrete slabs. The mother lode, if you will. Hundreds of the slabs, along with bundles of bricks and haphazardly placed wooden beams, lined Front Street near Walnut, taking up the equivalent of about half a city block.

There's something you don't see every day.

Except, Hamilton did start seeing the construction materials every day. It's been a year, he said, and they haven't budged.

"It's a little obscene," Hamilton said last week, when we visited the scene, near Penn's Landing parking.

It did feel weird, like someone had misplaced thousands of dollars of construction materials.
Even if the materials hadn't been forgotten, it sure felt like they had. They weren't being carefully monitored: Someone had stolen some bricks from a neatly bundled stack.

So, we made some calls to figure out how a half-block's worth of concrete slabs had come to occupy a city street.

STONEWALLED: We called up Andrew Stober, chief of staff at the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities, who told us that the owner of these mysterious materials is . . . the city of Philadelphia! The slabs are part of a sidewalk-improvement project in Society Hill, installing handicapped-accessible sidewalk ramps.

The project started last spring, as reported by PlanPhilly, but was held up when members of the Society Hill Civic Association protested that the ramps and other improvements did not look like the ones that they had approved. Members of the association were concerned that the construction didn't fit in with the neighborhood's historic look.

By summer's end, the city and the association had come to an agreement over the construction, but the city had to renegotiate the contract for the work.

Meanwhile, the materials sat on Front Street for months, where the contractor had left them.
Stober said it would have been expensive to move everything, adding that not many people park on out-of-the-way Front Street.

The Streets Department hadn't been concerned about people stealing the materials, Stober said, because they were so heavy.

When we spoke with Lorna Katz Lawson, chairwoman of the association's Zoning and Historic Preservation Committee, who lives near the materials' makeshift storage area, she said that "everybody's just kind of living with it."

She was concerned about the theft of the expensive materials, but she said that it's nothing like when the city put in cobblestones on Dock Street.

"We had pyramids of cobblestones throughout the winter," she said, and people did steal them. Of course, cobblestones are nowhere as heavy as concrete slabs.

The work should start this spring, Stober said.

Fingers crossed.

3-1-1 WATCH: Speaking of sidewalks, this week we looked into a dangerous-sidewalk complaint as part of our new feature, 3-1-1 Watch.

To refresh your memory: Last year, 3-1-1 received 90,000-plus requests for city services having to do with graffiti, illegal dumping, broken streetlights and lots more. We wondered what would happen if we randomly followed up on some requests. We're choosing complaints that 3-1-1 classifies as "resolved," then checking them out to see if neighbors are happy with the city's response.

The complaint: A brick sidewalk in Port Richmond is caving in.

3-1-1 says: The caller reported the problem in early January, and four days later, the Streets Department notified the property owners to fix the sidewalk. (Sidewalks are considered the property owner's responsibility, unless a problem with it is somehow caused by city infrastructure.)

We found: A deep hole in the sidewalk. There was a Streets Dept. barricade on top of it, but a neighbor who didn't want to be identified said that her husband, a police officer, had installed the barricade on his own because the city never placed one there. Water Dept. spokeswoman Joanne Dahme said the city generally doesn't do so in such cases unless a sidewalk is dangerous.

It turned out that two neighbors were waiting for word from the city about which of them was responsible for the hole. We spoke with a neighbor named Mary; she had been waiting for almost a month for the Water Dept. to inspect the hole and figure out what caused it. Once we called the department, the inspection finally was done - and it turned out that Mary's broken pipe had caused the problem. The Water Dept. will now give Mary 10 days to show that she is working on fixing the problem. We spoke with Mary yesterday, and she said that she's getting right on it.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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