Changing Skyline: Silence ensures work keeps coming for architect in Market Street building collapse

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The supervising architect behind the building collapse, Plato Marinakos Jr.​

It's been more than two years since that terrible June day when a wobbly, three-story wall tumbled onto the roof of a Salvation Army thrift store during a demolition project, killing six people. But the architect who was supervising the job, Plato Marinakos Jr., has never stopped working.

Marinakos designed a five-story apartment house on Buttonwood Street last year and has sought zoning variances for other buildings. The website for his firm, Plato Studio, lists four projects for 2015. Even as this month's trial of demolition contractor Griffin Campbell was conjuring up painful memories of the Market Street tragedy during the day, Marinakos was making presentations at night to a community group about a new project.

Last week, Campbell was convicted of manslaughter charges for the six deaths. He will almost certainly spend years in jail. This week, Marinakos got a green light from South Kensington Community Partners to build 13 slick rowhouses at Randolph and Oxford Streets. It passed without anyone asking about the collapse.

Marinakos, 49, is able to carry on normally with his life because the office of District Attorney Seth Williams granted him immunity from criminal prosecution in exchange for his testimony.

Now the question is, does Marinakos deserve a similar pass from the architectural profession?

Nobody involved with the Market Street demolition ended up looking good, but testimony about Marinakos' behavior was undeniably damning.

Marinakos, a licensed architect and member of the American Institute of Architects, testified he knew the night before the tragedy that a century-old wall had been left unsupported and could topple at any moment. He ordered Campbell to do something about it immediately.

What he did not do, according to testimony, was tell the Salvation Army to close its store until the danger was abated. He did not instruct Campbell to wrap the busy Center City corner in yellow caution tape. He did not report the dangerous conditions to city building officials. As the architect for a straightforward demolition project, his role was to serve as the eyes and ears of his client, speculator Richard Basciano, and document the progress of demolition.

If witnesses are telling the truth, Marinakos was "certainly in violation of AIA's code of ethics," concluded Thomas Fisher, author of two books on architectural ethics and a professor at the University of Minnesota. "If you see something wrong, you have to report it," he said. "You don't look at it and just tell the contractor."

Privately, many Philadelphia architects have expressed similar sentiments. But publicly, there has been virtual silence from the AIA.Jim R owe, who just took over as president of the local chapter, concedes "this is certainly a subject for discussion." After a brief conversation, Marinakos declined to talk with me about his situation.

Construction is a notoriously dangerous industry, with more injuries and deaths than any other occupation. Although many people from different fields contribute, architects play a crucial role. At the most basic level, it's their job to make sure buildings don't fall down.

Yet, architects are not in the habit of judging their own when they do. Though architects must be licensed, like doctors and lawyers, there are few cases in the U.S. in which they have been sanctioned by their peers for malpractice or bad behavior. In the nine years that Christine DeOliveira Carl has served on Pennsylvania's Architecture Licensure Board, she said, its members have never voted to revoke a practitioner's license.

Surely, it can't be because there are no bad buildings going up.

As far as Carl knows, no one has filed a complaint against Marinakos with the licensure board. But she also said her board was not always informed of ongoing investigations. A spokeswoman for the Department of State, which oversees the licensure board, would not comment on whether there was an active complaint against Marinakos.

Compare that lack of transparency to the case involving Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane. After she was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice - offenses that involved no loss of life - the suspension of her law license was widely reported. If she is found not guilty, her license will most likely be restored.

But we don't know if Marinakos has even had his license questioned. What does that seeming lack of urgency say to the families of the victims - or to the public?

"We're surprised, given the information that came out at the trial, that he could still be practicing," Nancy Winkler told me. She and her husband, Jay Bryan, lost their 24-year-old daughter, Anne, when the bricks rained down on the thrift store. If no one else files a complaint with the licensure board, they say they will.

Of course, Marinakos does face serious repercussions. He is one of several people named in a lawsuit brought by the victims' families, including Winkler and Bryan. But whatever judgment is awarded will be paid by Marinakos' insurance carrier.

One moment of poor judgment doesn't necessarily mean Marinakos is not a capable designer. Several people I interviewed spoke of his work positively. "He's actually a competent architect," said Leo Addimando, who develops apartments for the Alterra Property Group. And Charles Abdo, who helped revive the Globe Dye Works and who sits on the zoning committee of the South Kensington civic association, found Marinakos' Randolph Street rowhouse design "better than average."

That project's developer, Toby Biddle, said he had no hesitation about hiring Marinakos. "His architectural abilities were never in question," Biddle said. The actual design was developed by another architect, Nir Namon. Marinakos is the "expeditor," just as he was for Basciano.

All the more reason a transparent investigation by the licensure board is needed to determine whether Marinakos should still be expediting.

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