Residents of two East Falls blocks face $450K bill for alley-wall repairs
A stone wall constructed in the late 1920s is coming between neighbors on Penn Street and Midvale Avenue in East Falls.
The stone-masonry retaining wall that separates the rear alley of houses along 3401-3463 W. Penn St. from the common driveway of homes along 3400-3458 Midvale Ave. is leaning, cracked and unsafe, according to a structural report by the Streets Department (PDF).
Large fissures have formed between the alley and the wall, as well, and plants are growing in the deteriorating parts of the mica schist and cement. If it fails, the rear decks of Penn Street homes will collapse and cause structural damage to those buildings.
The 65 residents along the affected blocks of Penn and Midvale are now being asked to pick up the estimated bill of $450,000 to make the repairs that would secure the wall and prevent further deterioration.
That's an average cost of $6,923 for the residents, depending on the width of their properties.
Violation notifications from city
The city's Department of Licenses & Inspections sent letters to the residents in recent weeks informing them that they were "in violation" of Philadelphia building codes because of the condition of the retaining wall.
At a Tuesday night meeting near the wall — organized by the office of Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. — the neighbors heard some good, but mostly bad, news about a challenging situation.
Albert McCarthy, construction codes specialist with L&I, told them they would not be fined for the violations cited in the letters they recently received.
The letters had informed the recipients that they were "directed to make repairs" to the wall within 30 days or the city would take action to demolish and reconstruct the wall at the homeowners' expense, which could be 20 percent more than if the residents hired a private contractor to make the repairs.
McCarthy assured the more than 50 neighbors who attended the outdoor meeting that his office would not pursue any fines.
Weekly inspections of the wall will be made, and if the wall seems stable for now, the city will give the residents more time to deal with the problem.
Why do the residents pay?
Darin Gatti, chief engineer for the Streets Department, explained to the residents why they were all responsible for making the repairs to the wall erected 85 years ago.
The block — bounded by Midvale Avenue and Penn, Vaux and Conrad streets — was developed by builder Michael J. McCrudden in 1928 to 1929, according to a report by city surveyor and regulator John Parkinson.
To complete construction of the houses and to deal with "compelling grade problems," the builder constructed the 12-foot-wide driveway behind the Midvale properties with a retaining wall that supports a 3-foot-wide alley, sidewalk and fence for use of the Penn Street homes.
Parkinson's report (PDF) concluded that in keeping with a municipal act from 1923, the responsibility for repairs to the entire driveway should be shared by property owners on Midvale, and repairs related to the alley and fence be apportioned among owners of the Penn Street properties.
Any repairs to the retaining wall should be shared by all of the property owners of Midvale and Penn in proportion to the width of their properties abutting the wall, Parkinson wrote.
"It's a common misconception that you are responsible for the driveway that is only behind your house," Gatti said. "You are responsible for the entire driveway."
All the neighbors on Midvale and Penn are "equally liable" if anyone is injured because of the condition of the wall, which is private property, he said.
Residents on the Midvale side of the block asked Gatti why they were responsible for conditions that seemed to be caused by their Penn Street neighbors who built decks just above the wall. The areas of the wall that lean and bulge are clearly below the backyard decks.
Gatti said three main factors cause a retaining wall to fail: Water infiltration, tree roots/vegetation and lack of maintenance.
In the case of the East Falls wall, there is "no smoking gun" that caused the damage, but there are multiple causes, he said.
The decks behind the Penn Street homes were inspected when they were constructed, McCarthy said. There are no setback requirements from a retaining wall for decks.
The wall itself was constructed before the city zoning code existed.
The choices they face
Gatti said the residents had several options to fix the problem.
The most expensive — the $450,000 option — would be complete reconstruction of the wall.
A second option would be partial reconstruction, focused on the worst sections of the 550-foot-long wall.
A third option would be installation of tiebacks that would hold up the wall at the worst points along the expanse.
Rows of East Falls homes, including those along the Penn Street and Midvale Avenue blocks, have been designated a historic district by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
Gatti said he had talked to Historical Commission representatives, and there would probably be allowances made if partial reconstruction was not done in stone. Replacing the mica schist could double the price, Gatti said.
Discussion amongst neighbors
The biggest challenge ahead for the residents will be coming to an agreement to repair the wall that will satisfy everyone.
In his 30 years of experience, he has seen three examples where neighbors were able to solve the problem on their own, but all those cases involved much smaller walls, Gatti said.
The meeting ended with the formation of a committee of residents from both sides of the wall to take the next steps, with the guidance of Councilman Jones' office.
Gatti said he would provide the neighbors with a list of qualified contractors that have been employed by the city.
Greg Curci, a resident of Penn Street for 11 years, said there is no animosity between the two sides of the retaining wall.
"But, I can't conceive of a way that this many parties can come up with an agreement and at this cost," Curci said. "To try to get a consensus on how this should be done will be impossible."
He said the city will have to take the lead in making the repairs to the wall.
Midvale resident Joe Locastro said both sides share "some responsibility."
Some damage to the wall has occurred naturally and some has been due to negligence, he said, noting that the outdoor decks erected on the Penn Street side were built too close to the wall.
"After the decks went up," he said, "the wall started moving."
Penn Street resident Glenna Hazeltine also weighed in.
"The issue is simple: The wall has to be fixed. The next step will be a meeting from both streets," she said, jokingly referred to the blocks as the Hatfields and McCoys. "If some residents don't participate, we'll have to give it back to the city."
In the meantime, she said, the homes can't be sold and "our property values just tanked."