The commissioner of the city Department of Licenses and Inspections intervened in the demolition of a Point Breeze building in 2014, allowing the structure to come down without required permits.
In a complaint to the city Office of the Inspector General, an L&I inspector wrote that the contractor who did the demolition at 24th and Federal Streets got the go-ahead after telling Commissioner Carlton Williams in a private meeting that he was financially strapped and needed to start work to get paid.
In the absence of permits, the demolition took place without a safety plan or the required inspections as the work progressed, L&I inspectors say - in violation of regulations set up after the fatal Center City building collapse during a botched demolition in June 2013.
Williams declined to comment.
In a series of e-mailed statements, Williams' chief of staff, Beth Grossman, said Williams met with the contractor, Donald Plummer of Dd Fox L.L.C., in July 2014.
She said Williams spoke with him after receiving a complaint that the contractor was unable to acquire a demolition permit for "an extremely dangerous building."
After researching the property, Williams ordered it to be made safe by demolishing unsupported free-standing walls while the contractor waited for the permit, Grossman wrote. This was to mitigate a "threat to health and public safety," she said.
The demolition was unusual in several ways.
For one, it appears to have proceeded at the commissioner's direction.
In the L&I database describing the demolition, then-inspector Norman Mason wrote on Aug. 1, 2014, "contractor can start demo per the commissioner."
Mason, now retired, declined to comment.
Plummer, the contractor, could not be reached for comment. A man who answered the phone at Plummer's office last week and identified himself as Plummer's son said the demolition had the proper city approvals. "You need to check with the city. There were permits," he said, before hanging up.
L&I inspectors, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said that in extreme emergencies, agency officials can order demolitions without permits.
But that was not the case with the demolition at 1140 S. 24th St., they said.
The building was a two-story brick structure that included a laundry years ago, said Cynthia Edwards, the Point Breeze woman who owns the property. She said she hired Dd Fox to take it down last summer.
Edwards had received repeated violation notices from L&I because the building had been missing a roof, among other problems, records show.
The building was deemed "unsafe," an official designation indicating it was badly deteriorated. This is a step above L&I's most dire designation, "imminently dangerous," meaning a building is in danger of falling and hurting someone.
Beginning in 2005, there were more than a dozen inspections of the building, describing it as "unsafe," not "imminently dangerous," inspectors said.
On July 25, 2014, Dd Fox applied for a demolition permit, but it was held up by L&I because the contractor had not provided a full site-safety plan, complete tax and insurance information, as well as other detailed data required by new, post-collapse regulations, inspectors said.
Williams met with Dd Fox owner Plummer that same month, said Grossman, Williams' chief of staff.
Williams then overrode the new regulations and allowed the contractor to demolish the building, inspectors said. It is unusual for a commissioner to meet with a contractor to discuss a single building, they added.
It is unclear why, out of 5,000 "unsafe" and 250 "imminently dangerous" buildings in the city, Williams became involved in this particular project.
Grossman did not respond to requests for comment.
On Aug. 1, 2014, after Williams' meeting with Plummer, L&I inspector Mason changed the building's status from unsafe to imminently dangerous in L&I records, current and former inspectors said.
Yet, inspectors say, there had not been a significant change in the building's condition in 10 years. And when Mason wrote that the building was imminently dangerous, he offered no reason why, other than to reiterate previous conditions, inspectors said.
L&I records list no complaints from neighbors or reports from police that anything dangerous had happened at the site, usually an indication that an emergency occurred, inspectors said.
So, how did the property go from "unsafe" to "imminently dangerous"?
"It appears the declaration of ID was done to allow L&I to address this as an emergency, and to allow the contractor to work without a permit in place," said a former L&I inspector familiar with the case.
An experienced inspector said the commissioner, who was not trained as an inspector, "doesn't have firsthand experience with deteriorated buildings," and has no expertise to determine whether a building is dangerous.
Also, because Williams allowed the demolition to go on without permits, there were no inspectors on hand to be sure the work was done safely, inspectors said. No one was hurt in the demolition, they said.
L&I records show neighbors had complained that the demolition had been done in an unsafe manner. Inspectors said the site was lacking a complete construction fence. And, they said, there were no sidewalk and street closures, which are required in a site-safety plan that would have been part of a permit.
In her response to questions from The Inquirer, Grossman did not address the main complaint by the inspector who wrote to the Inspector General's office and said: "I spoke with the contractor that is doing the work and he told me that he plead [sic] financial hardship and the commissioner gave him approval to start before the permit was issued."
The inspector concluded, "We are fortunate that no accidents have taken place."
On Nov. 12, two to three months after the building was taken down, a permit for the demolition was issued. Then on Dec. 3, another inspector wrote in the L&I database that he met with the contractor and went over the site-safety plan.
It's not clear why an inspector would discuss safety measures to be used in a demolition that had already taken place.
Asked about this, Grossman did not respond.
In yet another unusual entry in the database, made on June 11 of this year, inspector Shane McNulty wrote, "Demo was complete under old demo regulations before I took over area."
Because records show the demolition occurred in the summer of 2014, a year after new regulations guiding demolitions had been in place, McNulty's notation that "old demo regulations" had been followed was a clumsy attempt to justify that the building had been taken down without a site-safety plan, said an L&I inspector.
Efforts to reach McNulty were unsuccessful.