Last Thursday bricks tumbled down more than 30 feet from the parapet of the Edward Corner Marine Merchandize Warehouse at Delaware Avenue and Shackamaxon Street, crashing to the sidewalk and leaving a heap of debris and dust. The three story building, a rare survivor of Philadelphia’s maritime history, was recently purchased by Streamline, a local real estate developer. Streamline began construction work at the site in July with plans to transform it into the company’s office headquarters.
To Philadelphia’s historic preservation advocates, the scenario feels all too familiar. The building is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and is legally protected from being demolished. However, a landmarked building can be razed if it is deemed “imminently dangerous” by the Department of Licenses and Inspections if the owner can prove to Philadelphia Historical Commission that a structure is beyond repair. But despite being cited with a slew of L&I violations following the incident, the Edward Corner building’s fate has not yet been sealed. City officials are working with an independent engineer to evaluate the structure’s condition before they make any determinations about next steps.
Fortunately, no one was hurt during the incident. Yet, neighbors diligently documenting the construction site and tracking the incident via Riverwards L + I Coalition, a watchdog Facebook discussion group dedicated to documenting construction sites in the river wards, raised the point that such structural instability should have been better anticipated by the owner and construction firm. An administrator of the Facebook page, who requested to remain anonymous for this article, said that neighbors from the group were the first to call 911 and the first to document and report the incident to L&I. “The neighbors are the ones advocating for safer construction sites. Edward Corner still stands today because the neighbors are invested in protecting their community,” said the anonymous source.
Neighbors have been keeping a close watch on construction at the site. An anonymous report submitted to the Philly 311 website contains a string of more than 30 comments, including photo documentation of the building. The thread points out potential problem areas with the building and frequently cites a 2016 engineering report that was submitted on behalf of the previous owner, Core Realty, prepared for a financial hardship application submitted in 2017 requesting permission to construct three additional floors on the building to offset the cost of stabilization.
Structural issues were first posted to the 311 website on July 22 this year, shortly after construction began. Comments submitted that day pointed out the lack of protection of the right of way, areas in which the masonry appeared to be bulging and unsafe and referenced the engineering report, citing specific requirements outlined within it regarding public safety precautions. An entry posted at the end of July reads, “Now in the FOURTH day of structural demolition 40’ above the adjacent sidewalks on 3 adjacent sides there are still NO posted permits. There is no right-of way closure and the areas adjacent to and below construction are unsafe to the public.”
Both members of the Facebook group and the anonymous tipster referenced the same engineering report, which outlined concerns regarding the structural stability of the three story brick warehouse, suggesting that construction activity at the site should have been subject to closer review due to its precarious state.
According to Paul Chrystie, deputy director of communications for the Department of Planning and Development, the building has been in very bad condition for a long time. L&I has issued a series of violations including “imminently dangerous structure” and “demolition by neglect.” The agency also ordered Streamline to submit a new engineering report on the stability of the building. On August 9, the company did, in which the engineer recommends that the entire structure be torn down.
However, Chrystie says that L&I is currently seeking a second opinion before any decisions are made. “L&I has not accepted Streamline’s engineering report as the final word on this building,” said Chrystie. The agency is working with a third party engineering firm “to evaluate and estimate what it will cost to brace and stabilize the building,” he said. The results of the assessment will be taken into consideration in making decisions regarding next steps.
The Edward Corner warehouse is best known for its faded ghost signs advertising rope, canvas, and other marine merchandise. It was placed on the local historic register in 2015. Just a few weeks ago, the building was the topic of a column by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron, who traced its history from its construction to the present. Saffron acknowledged that shoring up the building would likely be a challenge, given its condition, noting that the previous owners has been approved to make a large addition to the building to offset the costs of stabilizing and repurposing the historic shell.
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said that Edward Corner is a very important building as a rare remnant of Philadelphia’s port economy in the 19th century. He suspects that the owners intended to reuse the building but may have “gotten in over their heads” and created an unsafe construction situation. “I would hope that the building can be stabilized and that the planned rehabilitation and reuse as corporate offices can be executed so that the building is ultimately preserved, as planned,” Steinke concluded. “It would be very sad to see the building have to come down because of how renovation work was carried out.”
For activists and advocates entrenched in Philadephia’s preservation landscape, the fact that L&I is bringing in an independent assessor is an encouraging break from what they see as a dismal status quo where a listed building gets flagged as “imminently dangerous” and soon after gets the go-ahead for demolition. Pleas from preservationists urging Philadelphians to contact City representatives and voice their concerns have been circulating on social media in anticipation of the forthcoming engineering report.
The building’s owner, Streamline, did not return a request for comments before this story was published.