Mt. Airy development brings confusion and complaints

by Tom Beck
Posted 7/14/22

When developers Jon Thomas and Chris Murray first organized a meeting with people who live near their planned development project at 157 Carpenter Street - also known as Clifflawn - neighbors felt their voices were being heard. 

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Mt. Airy development brings confusion and complaints


Editor’s note: this story has been updated to reflect information gathered after the original version went to print. 

When developers Jon Thomas and Chris Murray first organized a meeting with people who live near their planned development project at 157 Carpenter Street - also known as Clifflawn - neighbors felt their voices were being heard. 

“They seemed like they definitely were going to be keeping us in the loop,” said nearby neighbor Anna Herman, who was at the meeting, which was held to discuss the subdivision that would bring six new houses to the site.

That was in June 2021. But as time went on, neighbors say, communication eventually came to a halt. And then nearly a year later, on June 13, they awoke to find three construction workers and a piece of heavy machinery demolishing the Colonial Revival style residence built in the late 19th century. 

Alarmed by the big clouds of dust they saw coming from the property, suddenly neighbors were scrambling to get information from developers who they say weren’t talking - and who they now viewed with suspicion. 

Feeling left out of the loop, neighbors were left to their own devices to figure out what was happening - leading to a confusing series of claims on both sides and no clear answers about what actually happened during the demolition of Clifflawn. It also produced a clear example of how poor communication can upset neighbors - even when developers are following city rules. 

Murray declined to speak on the record for this story, and Thomas did not return multiple calls requesting comment. 

But many neighbors are convinced that the developers did not follow city codes regarding asbestos and demolition regulations. 

“My concerns are like everybody else,” said one neighbor, David Pardys, who called the city’s licenses and inspections department on the demolition team. “We got dust clouds. We got asbestos. There’s a way to do things correctly and they should just do things correctly.”

Residents supplied the Local with a failed L&I inspection report dated June 14 - one day after demolition started - that said an asbestos report was required prior to the start of demolition and that dust control fencing needed to be installed. After the failed inspection, construction stopped and didn’t resume until July 5.

Neighbors were convinced that the city had issued a stop work order. 

But according to city spokesperson Joy Huertas, that’s only partially true. The city called for a pause in demolition while developers filed follow-up paperwork regarding their initial asbestos permit, Huertas said. They also needed to erect a mesh dust control fence 18 feet from the structure. 

Huertas said that the missing fence and paperwork did not present a danger to the public and therefore did not rise to the level of a stop work order. It also didn’t rise to the level of a violation. 

Karen Guss, another spokesperson for the city, said she was “not aware of anything untoward” in the developer’s actions, despite the failed inspection notice.

Philadelphia Department of Health spokesperson Matt Rankin said that as recently as Monday piles of rubble were checked for asbestos onsite and air tests were also conducted. In both cases, the city’s Air Management Services division found no evidence of asbestos. 

Rankin confirmed to the Local that no asbestos-related violations have been issued to the development team and that his office, which oversees asbestos regulations, doesn’t plan to issue any.

City records do show four open violations on the property, but according to Huertas, none of those have anything to do with the demolition of the building. They all relate to a long retaining wall that separates the property from its near neighbors, and ranges in height from four to 24 feet. 

Then there’s the matter of notice. According to neighbors, the development team did not provide a 30-day notice prior to the start of demolition despite an initial promise to do so. However, Guss confirmed, the development team was not legally obligated to provide such notice.

“The Philadelphia Code requires that notice be given when a demolition permit is applied for or issued,” Guss said. “It does not require additional notice prior to beginning the work.”

Maurice Sampson, a committeeperson in Clifflawn’s district who also serves as the Eastern Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action, said that he has additional concerns about lead in the building.

“The truth of the matter is asbestos is dangerous, but it requires repeated exposure,” said Sampson. “Lead affects your nervous system.”

But he may not be able to do anything about those concerns. According to Huertas, “lead removal is not a condition of a demolition permit.”

Another outstanding issue is who will take responsibility for the retaining wall once the new houses have been built and sold off to six different buyers. Both neighbors and Murray agree the wall is currently stable, but will need future maintenance.

“If the property is divided into six parcels, who’s responsible for the wall?” asked Herman. 

It’s not a small point. According to Josephine Winter, a neighbor on Gorgas Lane, 20 and 30 pound rocks have begun dangerously falling from the wall.

Despite its current stability, violations issued by L&I last month refer to the wall as an “unsafe structure,” corroborating Winter’s concerns. A separate violation for the wall is listed as “structural deterioration.”

“Our kids can’t play near the wall,” Winter said. 

Sampson said the neighbor’s concerns could be addressed with better communication. Friday night, neighbors held a meeting to talk about issues surrounding the project. Murray was expected to come, but backed out at the last minute. 

“I talked to Jon and said that the problem is communication,” said Sampson. “They needed to just talk to the neighbors. This has gotten much more complicated, when it didn’t have to be.”