Area of the 2600 block of Poplar Street where Ashaw Demolition of Oxford Circle took down nearly half a block of buildings.
Despite rules written after a collapse killed 6, a company took down half a block without permits. It says it was a "court-ordered job."
Alfred Lubrano / Inquirer Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015
Little more than a year after a botched demolition triggered a Center City building collapse that killed six, a demolition company took down nearly half a block of buildings in Philadelphia's Fairmount section without obtaining the required permits, an Inquirer investigation has found.
While dismantling five buildings last spring, Ashaw Demolition of Oxford Circle also brought down a house that had been in a family for four generations without informing the owner, the owner contends in court documents.
And Ashaw used at least some of the unsafe and discredited techniques that caused the collapse at 22d and Market Streets, city inspectors said.
The demolition violated tough new rules the city adopted so the tragedy of the collapse would never be repeated, inspectors said.
Rather than censuring Ashaw, Philadelphia officials rewarded the company by placing it on the so-called master demolition list. It's an exclusive club of companies called on when the city needs to demolish buildings, a coveted and lucrative position.
Carlton Williams, commissioner of the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, declined to be interviewed. He and other Nutter administration officials asked The Inquirer to submit questions about the Poplar Street demolition in writing.
Three days after receiving them, the administration reassigned the No. 2 person at L&I - Scott Mulderig, who oversaw demolitions - and referred the matter to the Inspector General's Office for further investigation.
"The contractor flouted the law and created a danger," city officials said, calling Ashaw's work an "illegal demolition."
Mulderig declined to comment, saying city officials had told him not to speak to the media.
Ashaw president Michael Patterson said he did not believe he needed permits for the job because a judge had ordered the demolition.
After two of the properties fell into disrepair, a Common Pleas Court judge last year ordered the owner, Graveley Family Partnership, to pay $40,000 in fines or demolish them. The three other buildings were unaffected by that order, court records show.
In any case, L&I officials say, the city requires permits for all demolitions, including those ordered by a court.
The error and confusion embodied by the Poplar Street demolition were supposed to be prevented by the regulations born of the Market Street collapse.
After that calamity, a devastated city recoiled, then dug in to do better.
City officials rewrote regulations guiding demolitions, codifying municipal grief into stronger laws meant to stave off dreadful recurrence.
But the Poplar Street demolition shows that the new rules were ignored.
A neighbor took thousands of time-lapse photographs of the demolition. In the lefthand photo, the bucket of an excavator is poised at the top of an unsupported, three-story masonry wall on the corner of 26th and Poplar Streets. The righthand photo shows that the excavator pushed the wall outward, toward Poplar Street.
"It's like an unseen hand guided them and protected them through the process of demolishing buildings without using permits," an L&I inspector said of Ashaw. Like other department employees interviewed, the inspector asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
L&I inspectors noticed the illegal demolition through the spring and summer and issued one verbal and one written stop-work order to halt it, but those efforts were sidestepped or ignored, city records show.
Although the project was shut down for a short time, it was ultimately allowed to continue until all the buildings were down, an inspector familiar with the project said.
"Taking down buildings without permits sends a chill through everybody," the inspector said. "It shows someone in the department is doing favors. And if more demolitions without permits are allowed, people will be hurt."
Told of the Poplar Street demolition, former L&I Commissioner Bennett Levin decried how it was handled, noted the potential threat to the public, and said the matter merited further investigation.
"I think this is something that goes to the district attorney," said Levin, who served as commissioner between 1991 and 1995. "We need to stand up and say we are not going to tolerate this behavior."
The exact date in April that Ashaw began the demolition is unclear. But as it progressed, it was unwittingly well-documented.
A neighbor took thousands of time-lapse photographs of the demolition between April and September. The photos were reviewed by The Inquirer, which shared them with two L&I inspectors.
In one photo, the bucket of an excavator is poised at the top of an unsupported, three-story masonry wall on the corner of 26th and Poplar Streets. At such a point in a demolition, the inspectors who reviewed the photos said, the contractor is supposed to either take the wall down by hand or pull it inward, away from the street.
In this case, the next photo shows, the excavator pushed the wall outward, toward Poplar Street.
Ruth Bissel's property at 909 Taney St. being demolished.
"Nobody in his right mind would push it out," one of the inspectors said. "It echoed 22d and Market, where they used the same maneuver and bricks fell onto the Salvation Army store and killed six people."
In addition, one inspector said, the photos showed that the sidewalk in front of a building at Taney and Poplar Streets wasn't completely closed. "There was a danger to passersby," he said.
Street and sidewalk closures, as well as the proper way to take down the wall, would have been outlined in a site-safety plan, often drawn up by engineers during a demolition to guide contractors, the inspectors said.
The plan, which is required to obtain a demolition permit, helps ensure that all safety measures are in place on a job. In this case, no safety plan was received by the city since there was no permit, one of the inspectors said.
Without the filing of a safety plan, there was no description of how asbestos - presumed to be in the group of aged buildings that included the 120-year-old Old English Tavern - was handled during demolition, inspectors added.
Ashaw's Patterson angrily denied the inspectors' assessments.
"You don't know what you're looking at when you see pictures of a demolition," he said. "It can look derogatory.
"But no one was hurt, and the bottom line is the public is safe because we took down a building that could have fallen and killed somebody."
L&I workers familiar with the Poplar Street demolition said they were surprised that Ashaw was added to the city's master demolition list.
When a company first applies for inclusion on the list, it must cite past projects as examples of its work for the city to consider. Ashaw included the Fairmount demolition and was accepted onto the list in December, city records show.
"The department missed the connection," city officials wrote in response to questions from The Inquirer.
Levin, the former L&I commissioner, said if a company had done a demolition like the Poplar Street job on his watch, he would have held a public hearing. "And maybe they wouldn't be on the city's list to do demolitions anymore," he added.
“Taking down buildings without permits sends a chill through everybody. It shows someone in the department is doing favors. And if more demolitions without permits are allowed, people will be hurt.”
An L&I inspector who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal
Ashaw was still on the list as of last week, a city spokesman said. Whether it will remain is being reviewed, he said.
During the demolition, Ashaw knocked down a house at 909 Taney St. that belonged to Ruth Bissell, who lives in Shrewsbury, Monmouth County.
In a February 2014 letter to Bissell, Beverly Penn, a senior lawyer in the code-enforcement unit of the City Solicitor's Office, described the vacant house as unsafe, and warned that the city was preparing to levy fines against Bissell.
Bissell's lawyer, Keith Northridge, said that while the house was in "disrepair," it had marble floors in several rooms and was well-crafted.
Michael Graveley, managing partner of Graveley Family Partnership, hired a firm that subcontracted the Poplar Street demolition work to Ashaw, Graveley said.
The partnership owned the properties near Bissell's vacant home, said Graveley, who added that the company plans to redevelop the area.
Bissell, who is suing Graveley, contends that the partnership allowed Ashaw to "recklessly" demolish her house "with no advance warning," according to documents filed in Superior Court in Monmouth County, N.J. The case is pending.
After the demolition, the documents say, Graveley left Bissell a voice mail threatening that if she didn't sell the land where the house had sat, she would "be sorry."
Graveley strenuously denied making such a statement. "I'm not that stupid to leave a voice mail," he said. "And I don't threaten people."
He said Bissell had given "verbal permission" to demolish the house to "a man named George" who was working with Ashaw at the site.
Northridge said that the house was worth as much as $265,000 and that Graveley had offered Bissell $185,000 for the land after the house was demolished. Bissell declined the offer, he said.
City officials declined to comment on the Taney Street demolition, other than to say they are "extremely troubled" by Bissell's contention that she was told she would "be sorry" if she stood in the way of the development plans.
They added, "We will await the outcome of the investigation."
More careful days
In August, an L&I inspector said he saw complaints registered in the city's 311 system about a messy demolition going on at 26th and Poplar Streets.
Checking in L&I's computer system, he saw that there were no permits registered for that job - highly unusual, he said, especially in the more careful days after 22d and Market.
“I think this is something that goes to the district attorney. We need to stand up and say we are not going to tolerate this behavior.”
Former L&I commissioner Bennett Levin, who served as commissioner between 1991 and 1995
The inspector contacted a supervisor. He said the supervisor admonished him to "stay away," adding it was a "very political job." According to the inspector, the supervisor then said, "I'm here with Scott [Mulderig], and he's saying don't go, either."
At the time, Mulderig was L&I's emergency services director, responsible for overseeing demolitions.
After being waved off the Poplar Street job, the inspector said, he e-mailed the Office of the Inspector General in August, saying, "I think someone should look into this." He added that he couldn't do so himself because "I fear . . . retribution."
The Inspector General's Office did not respond to questions about the e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer.
In their statement to The Inquirer, officials from L&I and the Mayor's Office said, "We are not aware of any inspector being told not to go near any site for political reasons."
The demolition of the Old English Tavern at 2619 Poplar St. grew out of an agreement that Graveley Partnership, the owner, had with the City Solicitor's Office: The group would demolish it to avoid $40,000 in fines for allowing the building to fall into disrepair, court records show.
Ashaw got the job to take it down, along with other properties Graveley owned on the block, Michael Graveley said. He declined to say what he paid for the work.
Asserting that he didn't need permits for the demolition, Ashaw's Patterson said it was a "court-ordered job."
Questioned further about that, Patterson said, "We're not out to do anything without permission."
Ashaw was apparently pleased with the Poplar job: The company included photos of the illegal demolition on its website.
Graveley said he believed the permits were being handled by Ashaw, and was unaware that anything improper had occurred.
A lawyer for Michael Graveley provided this photo of 909 Taney St. before demolition. The owner, Ruth Bissell, is suing, contending Ashaw demolished her house "with no advance warning."
City officials, in their e-mail to The Inquirer, said it was "egregious that a property owner would demolish a property without the proper permits."
Construction experts say doing a job without permits saves money, including the considerable cost of hiring an engineer to draw up a site-safety plan for a job.
Stephen Traitz 3d, a roofer who is Ashaw's managing partner, said, "Everything is 100 percent legitimate."
Traitz rose above his past to his position at Ashaw, after a federal conviction for drug dealing and racketeering in 2003 for which he served five years in prison.
Getting on master list
Traitz and Patterson's goal was to get Ashaw onto the city's master demolition list, Patterson said. For help, Patterson said, he called on his childhood friend Michael Youngblood. He's a former aide to Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell who was fired in 1993 after a scuffle with a SEPTA police officer.
A colorful character with many city government connections, Youngblood is a former boxer, drug dealer, and FBI informant. He's also a consultant to Ashaw Demolition.
Youngblood is a fixture at City Council meetings, and several people who work for L&I say they have overheard Youngblood in agency offices, speaking openly about getting Ashaw onto the master demolition list despite the illegal demolition.
Asked whether he had intervened with the city on Ashaw's behalf, Youngblood initially said: "I don't remember contacting them. Demolition is not my thing."
Told that city officials say he contacted L&I in June 2014 to ask about the process for application to the city's master demolition list, Youngblood said:
"I might have, in passing, asked some demo people, and procurement," a reference to the city department that handles purchasing.
"Mike didn't know how to get on the list. I said, 'Let me look into it,' " he said.
Youngblood added that he didn't bill Ashaw for his services. "How do you charge your friends?" he asked.
Youngblood denied asking Mulderig directly to put Ashaw on the master demolition list, adding, "I just hope he wasn't reassigned because he knows me."
Youngblood said he wasn't aware that the Poplar demolition was done without permits.
L&I records on work at the Old English Tavern make its status clear: "Complete demo without permit."
Those records show one more thing: Though the Poplar Street buildings are gone and only rubble remains, the department's stop-work order is still in effect.