The six-month renovation schedule was ambitious for any building, but especially for one as old and fragile as the historic Edward Corner building in Fishtown. That didn’t stop Streamline, the fast-growing rowhouse developer, from setting a Christmas deadline for moving its corporate offices into the old warehouse on Delaware Avenue.
Then, on Aug. 7, less than two months after the company’s in-house contractor started work, a portion of the western wall began to buckle near the roof, spewing bricks onto the street. After the company’s engineer concluded it would take heroic efforts to save the building, Streamline informed the city that it might have to demolish the 98-year-old landmark, one of the last intact buildings from Philadelphia’s maritime heyday.
In the past, building officials probably would have accepted the findings of the developer’s engineer at face value and allowed Edward Corner to be torn down, despite its protected status. But in what could be a precedent-setting response for historic preservation in Philadelphia, the Department of Licenses and Inspections has taken legal action to compel Streamline to stabilize the historic factory building, no matter how much it costs.
The lawsuit, filed late Friday in Common Pleas Court, claims that Streamline has only itself to blame for the damage to the Edward Corner building, which is known for its evocative wall signs advertising rope and canvas. The suit contends that Streamline was fully aware that the warehouse had been neglected for decades and was in poor condition, yet the company never bothered to shore up the walls “prior to the removal of the roof membrane and numerous joists.”
In an interview, L&I Commissioner David Perri went even further, calling the construction work “incompetent.” All the damage is “self-inflicted,” he said, adding that “this is the worst case" of poor construction “I’ve ever seen.” Streamline didn’t even set up a safety fence around the site.
But according to Streamline vice president Steve Kosloski, the city has exaggerated the seriousness of the damage because an L&I inspector was nearby, inspecting another Streamline site, when the bricks crashed to the sidewalk.
“Once it happened, there was this knee-jerk reaction, and now they are overcompensating for what we see as a minor incident," Kosloski said. "Had the inspector not been there, we wouldn’t even be talking about this.”
Kosloski also denied Perri’s assertion that Streamline wanted to demolish the warehouse. "We still want to restore the building, as long as it’s not cost-prohibitive,” he said.
Kosloski’s version of events is at odds with accounts offered by several neighborhood activists. In mid-July, they began complaining to L&I about the lack of safety measures around the Edward Corner building. They became alarmed when Streamline tore off the roof without first bracing the walls, said Venise Whitaker, who founded the Riverwards L+I Coalition, a clearinghouse to report construction violations. Without the roof to hold the structure together, there was nothing to keep the brick walls from toppling over, as happened in the deadly Salvation Army collapse in 2013.
Perri acknowledged that residents had raised concerns about poor construction methods at the Edward Corner building, but said that L&I is not allowed to instruct contractors how to do their job. “The building code does not regulate means and methods,” he said. L&I inspectors can issue violation orders only once an irregularity occurs.
Even before the construction boom reached its current frenzied pitch, L&I struggled to stay on top of violations at the city’s construction sites. Things have only gotten worse in recent years, as more inexperienced contractors and developers try to cash in on Philadelphia’s thriving real estate market. So far this year, six occupied homes have been undermined to the point of collapse, up from two in all of 2018. Every few days there is another allegation of subpar or dangerous construction on the Facebook page set up by Whitaker’s coalition.
The Edward Corner case is not the first time in recent months that L&I has been forewarned about serious violations at construction sites. In Queen Village, the owners of a colonial-era home complained for months about the way construction was being managed on the site next door. While L&I did step in to order the developer to brace their shared party wall, the house’s foundation still suffered serious damage. The owners, Adam Knowles and Debjani Bhattacharyya, were forced to move out because of unsafe conditions.
L&I can also be too quick to approve the demolition of historic structures, especially those that have a history of neglect. Last year, it allowed developer Ori Feibush to raze the long-vacant Chocolate Factory on Washington Avenue after bricks began falling from one of its walls. At the time, the block-long 19th century factory was being considered for the historic register and several architects who toured it said it could have easily been stabilized. The demolition gave Feibush a cleared site for building townhouses in the highly desirable Graduate Hospital neighborhood.
If Philadelphia is going to rein in irresponsible contractors and developers, Perri said, L&I needs additional powers. “An inspector can only enforce the code,” he said. “We believe, with older historical buildings, we need an amendment that would allow us to require bracing and shoring.”
The lawsuit filed last week could also offer a new approach, although it does not guarantee that the Edward Corner building will be saved. The complaint simply calls on Streamline to fully stabilize the structure. Once that is done, the suit notes, the company may petition the Historical Commission for permission to demolish the 1920s warehouse.
Time is already running out for the Edward Corner building. The stabilization work at needs to begin immediately, Perri said, or the building could succumb during the upcoming hurricane season. Winter could be fatal. He estimates that the repairs could run as much $1.5 million. The city is seeking a variety of fines, as well as compensation for installing safety barriers around the building, undertaking an independent engineering study, and legal costs.
But what the city really wants, Perri insisted, is for the historic building to be restored. “Our position going into court, is this: Fix the entire building.”