Abandoned Buildings - When to Demolish and When to Renovate - A Cautionary Tale in Philadelphia

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

I'm trying to be calm as I write this post - but I'm actually outraged, frightened and perplexed at the same time - and it appears there's nothing I can do about it.

Starting from the beginning, last Wednesday, August 17, 2016, we - meaning my neighbors and myself - were awakened at 7:00 AM by loud banging on our doors.   It was the Philadelphia Fire Department telling us we had to evacuate our residence because a portion of the back wall of the adjacent abandoned building had collapsed.

A neighbor to the south of us had observed it, and called it in to the Fire Department.  We had to wait outside until  Licensing and Inspections (L & I) arrived to determine whether our home was habitable, or if it had been compromised by the other property. No fewer than three fire trucks were parked in front of our home - as we drowsily made our way downstairs and to the street.  We could see nothing  initially wrong with the building - which was a twin to the one we resided in - but they had already gained access to the back of the property and found the problem.

When the L & I inspector arrived, we were given 15 minutes to get our things and exit the property, go to red cross or a friend or a relative.  At the time, I was quite pleased to know that they were so responsive and had taken quite an interest in our welfare and safety.  So we all coped with the situation as best we could, and by 1:00 that afternoon we were informed that the wall had been secured and we could return home.

The L & I contractors boarded up the house, secured the perimeter, and put orange warning signs on the doors indicating there was danger and not to enter the premises.   Embarrassing, but necessary. We basically grimaced and bore the indignity as best we could.

Thinking everything was all right, we resumed the business of living.

However, on Monday, August 22, we were awakened by banging on the walls of the abandoned property next door.  The sound of a ripsaw blasted through the morning - 8:00AM!!! When many of us - including yours truly - are not yet out of bed, or fully awake.

When we emerged from our home, we found that they had begun to demolish the premises - there were bricks all over the yard, rafters, red dust covered our porch and furniture; and the sounds of buzz saws penetrated everything making it impossible to talk on the phone or hold a conversation.

When I exited my home to go to a doctor's appointment, there was so much powder  and dust from the red brick coating the front porch, it became slippery and difficult to walk.  The railing was covered with red dust which got on my clothes and hands.  They had neglected to tarp our property so we would not suffer from the resulting debris. 

Truck delivering dumpster to the demolition site

Demolition crew throwing debris into dumpster

I spoke with two of the demolition crew and asked why they were tearing down the building after it had already been secured - and they replied, "The City - they say tear it down; so we tear it down."

When I asked how long was it going to take - they stated, "It is not so easy to tear it down - it's a tough building."  Which goes to the reason that I'm posting this article:

The fact that an outer wall collapsed on the building should not have automatically led to the conclusion that the entire property needed to be demolished.  It's like going after a gnat with an elephant gun.  Now the foundation and stability of the property I reside in is being compromised as a result of this.  Our entire building shakes at least four or five times an hour when they used the sledge hammer to knock something out - so much so that I have had objects fall from the shelf, and debris is now forming in the kitchen.

Additionally, it is apparent that the building was in much better shape than originally assumed, and it would have cost far less to have renovated it and made it habitable than to have torn it down.  Perhaps it would have been more intelligent to have offered it to a developer; or find out if the owner of the property next door would have been interested in obtaining the building - and with a possible grant from the city, rehabilitated the property.  At the very least, maybe a "gut" reno - where the interior was demolished, leaving the shell to be renovated would have been a better course of action.

Philadelphia architecture and structures are remarkably sound and resilient.   With the new Landbanking Commission, it would have been an opportunity to save one of these fine old structures, than to have had the demolition derby come in and get paid to wreck it and render it useless.

They explained that after they tore down the building - which is proving much tougher than they anticipated, they would then stucco the outer wall of our building.  Well whoopie!!! 

I'm not knocking the efficiency of  Licensing and Inspections - but I do think that there should have been more consideration before they made the decision to demolish.  Additionally, the owner of the premises should have been advised of the fact that they were going to demolish the building; and perhaps even some coordination between L & I and the Land Bank Commission could have come up with a better solution.

According to my landlady - who owns the property I reside in, she had made an offer to the former owner of the property to purchase the building several years ago, after they had relocated to California for his "health".  They continued to claim that they were going to return - when 10 years later, they did not, and the building, absent human life, began to deteriorate.  

No tarp so dust and debris fell on our porch as well - our home is to the right

Mind you, there are  thousands of eyesores in the city of Philadelphia that should be either demolished or renovated - some have been standing like specters over the communities for decades.  They have to be the bane of the existence of residents who want to have decent neighborhoods.  These are buildings where a good bulldozer is the only solution to the situation.  

However, the demolition of the twin adjacent to where I reside -which is proving to be stronger than Fort Knox, was not one of those properties - probably the same amount of money spent to demolish it would have rendered it a wonderful residence for a family in need of a decent affordable home.  

Too late now!

In the future, however,  the City of Philadelphia  should come up with a better way of making determinations as to the efficacy of the structures - and determine whether or not it makes sense to turn it over to a developer; a resident interested in and capable of renovation - before demolishing it.

In reference to the property adjacent to us, now that there is no turning back, perhaps they should give the vacant land to the owner of the twin to be put to good use as a yard space - it's clear that it's way too late to stop the madness at this point (SMH).

I placed a call to Mr. Stallworth of Licensing and Inspection, who initially came out last Wednesday to inspect the property after the collapse of the back wall, but  got no answer from his office phone; and the message on the cell phone said that no answering or voice mail had been set up.  

I subsequently contacted City Councilwoman Cindy Bass' office.  She was out in the field, but her scheduler stated she would contact her to have her drive by the property to see the destruction.  I had wanted to consult with them before I made any additional moves.

The damage has been done in this situation; but going forward, there should be more consideration than what we were given in the decision to demolish or renovate.  And I daresay the newer buildings that are being constructed aren't nearly as sound as some of the old, original Philadelphia architectural masterpieces.  The amount of time it's taking to tear this one down is proof of that.  

Stay Blessed & 

NOTE:  Gloria Dulan-Wilson is the former Housing Coordinator for the City of Jersey City, and oversaw several renovations of properties in the Jersey City community under the late Glenn D. Cunningham, Mayor of Jersey City; additional she is the former Executive Director of an Affordable Housing program in Brooklyn; a NACA (Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America) Advocate for first time homebuyers.


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