The partial building collapse at Orianna and Girard last week was an accident waiting to happen, neighbors say—and just the latest result of the City’s failure to hold accountable a negligent landlord whose properties have become a nuisance to the neighborhood and weighed down a busy commercial corridor.
For Judy Robinson, a seven-year South Kensington resident and business owner, the real culprit isn’t the Department of Licenses and Inspections, but a city policy (or lack thereof) that lets blightlords get away with not paying property taxes—especially at a time when the School District is in dire financial straits.
“If they choose to have income and to use city services, they should be chipping in like the rest of us,” she says.
Portions of the walls of 325 W. Girard Avenue, a vacant three-story row house, fell down at around 8:30 p.m. on Friday. L&I has declared the building imminently dangerous and is forcing the owner, Carlos Sanchez, to demolish the rest of it to comply with safety regulations.
But South Kensington neighbors wonder what took so long, considering that it wasn’t the first collapse involving this owner at this intersection.
Sanchez owns three properties at the corner of Orianna Street, including 323 W. Girard, the site of the former Aqua Lounge night club that partially collapsed in 2010 while interior demolition work was being performed. Sanchez demolished the rest of that building save for the rear wall, but it led to complaints of rubble and debris getting dumped at the site and exposed the 325 house as a safety hazard.
Kathy Vissar has been calling 311 for almost a year about the properties. Well before Friday’s collapse, she says, the structural issues were in plain sight.
“You don’t need an engineering degree to see that someone’s going to get hurt,” says Vissar, who has operated her ornamental plaster and interior restoration business at Fourth & Girard for twenty years.
Vissar’s first call to 311 came in October, just before Hurricane Sandy came to level sections of the rear wall and confirm her fears. Her most recent call was on July 26—four weeks ago. After that call, she claimed, the City dispatched an exterminator to address the problem of rat infestation, but did nothing to address the building itself. She wonders aloud how such a property could be allowed to fester on such a major street.
“There’s a lot of people walking that block,” notes Vissar, pointing out the city health center located across Orianna. She’s clearly not content with the sense of relief in the media that no injuries occurred: “If it had happened four hours earlier,” she says, “this would have been a totally different story on the news.”
Because of the collapse, plans are on indefinite hold for work on the Sabina Rose Memorial Garden immediately behind the properties. The garden commemorates the site where the body of 20-year-old Sabina Rose O’Donnell was found in 2010. The murder shocked residents in Kensington and Northern Liberties, from which O’Donnell was returning home late after work.
According to Revenue Department records, Sanchez owes over $62,000 in unpaid taxes on the three properties. He also owns two other properties on the 400 block of W. Girard, which have no safety violations and are current on tax payments. Attempts by Hidden City to reach Sanchez, who is listed on tax records as a resident in the local 19122 zip code, were unsuccessful.
L&I had been monitoring 325 and 327 W. Girard Avenue for several years as vacant properties, and recently wrote them up for violating L&I’s anti-blight “doors and windows” ordinance, according to spokesperson Rebecca Swanson. She notes that Sanchez was cooperative in repairing damaged walls at 325 after Sandy. However, if he does not comply with the current “make safe” enforcement and tear down the building, L&I would have the authority to use the tax delinquency as leverage against Sanchez to recommend the properties to sheriff’s sale. A City-appointed demolition contractor would also have to step in.
And to those who would like a swift resolution to a dangerous situation?
“Nothing is as quick as people want it to be because there’s a legal process,” Swanson says, while adding that the process won’t be held up because they’re not dealing with an absentee landlord in this case. “There’s a clearly identified owner, and when the owner is around, we can work with them to get things done.”
Neighbors will be keeping a wide distance until the building comes down, hoping history won’t repeat itself.