Coltrane Watch:

Demolition Permits and the Coltrane House

Questions surrounding how any person or business gets a demolition permit for a building are rampant in the jazz community, especially when it concerns the John Coltrane House at 1511 North 33rd Street, or in this case, the house at 1509 North 33rd Street, which is attached to the historic home site. The owners of 1509 have applied for, but not yet received, a demolition permit.

Demolition Permits and the Coltrane House

The Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) is the only entity in the City of Philadelphia that issues demolition and building permits, and only a few people may request them: the building owner, an attorney for the owner, a licensed contractor, and a licensed expediter (a person licensed with the city to file permits and licenses applications on behalf of another individual).

Additionally, the permit application must be signed by the owner or include an authorization from the owner; the site safety manager and demolition supervisor must be named; all permits must be applied for under the legal address; and if the property was recently sold, a copy of the settlement sheet or deed must be submitted with application.

For an historic building like the John Coltrane House, the Philadelphia Historical Commission must give permission for the permit, but again, it’s important to note that the demolition permit applied for was for the house next to the Coltrane House

To Paraphrase Shakespeare—Here’s the rub

There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rules to address the situation if a planned demolition is abutting an historic site or if that demolition may be damaging to the structure next door. Reassurances by L&I have been common for demolitions close to other buildings, but there have been accidents. For example, in 2013, an “cut-rate” demolition contractor was held liable for causing the lethal collapse of a Salvation Army store that abutted the building being demolished that was right next door at 22nd and Market Streets. The demolition destroyed the Salvation Army store, killed six people, and injured others. This accident didn’t inspire confidence in the oversight process.

On March 9, 2021, the managing director’s office and L&I issued a press release because of the rising anxiety from the jazz community about the proposed demolition of the house next door to the John Coltrane House.

Here are some of the main points in that press release that are of note:

“The owners of 1509 N. 33rd St., the home next door to the Coltrane House, have applied for permission to demolish the house. The application is under review.” Note: The press release states that L&I is reviewing the application NOT the Philadelphia Historic Commission.

Although, L&I states that they will be closely monitoring the demolition with inspectors “to make sure that they [the demolition contractors] understand their responsibilities and are equipped to put the necessary protections into effect,” the release also says that “although it is next to a historic property, the Historical Commission has no say over whether the owner takes down 1509. [Author’s Italics] The Historical Commission’s authority only applies to a designated property.”

The rest of the press release is full of assurances that L&I will be working closely with the Historic Commission about how the demolition is conducted, but it’s still difficult to see how anyone gets over the statement: “. . . the Historical Commission has no say over whether the owner takes down 1509.”

I contacted the author of the press release, Paul Chrystie at the Office of Planning and Development, and he told me that the Historic Commission “only weighs in if something affects 1511.” He then referred me to Karen Guss, the communications director at L&I, who said the permit is still under review, and she suggested people check the City’s Atlas app under the Licenses and Inspections tab for 1509 N. 33rd Street daily. “It is updated nightly, so a permit issued on a Monday should be listed on Atlas on Tuesday.”

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