Demolition of the fire-ravaged Burton Hirsch Funeral Home on Murray Avenue is finally underway, but has met yet another snag that will delay the ultimate razing of the building.
The contractor hired by Service Corporation International, the Houston-based parent company of Burton Hirsch, ran into an active water service line that feeds into the building, and cannot locate the shut off valve. The demolition of the building cannot continue until the water has been shut off, said Paul Loy, Demolition Manger of the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Building Inspection.
Loy said the contractor is working with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority in an effort to locate the shut off valve.
More than six months after the Jan. 10 fire destroyed all but a one-story street front addition to the property, the boarded up building remains an eyesore, a health hazard, and an “attractive nuisance,” said Councilman Doug Shields, president of city council.
The Pittsburgh Fire Department has released no official cause of the fire.
Shields, who has been fielding numerous complaints from constituents about the rat-infested building, says he is frustrated and annoyed it is taking so long to demolish the structure.
“It’s one thing after another,” Shields said. “Why is this thing still up? There should’ve been a more coordinated response to make sure the demolition proceeded in a timely manner.”
Shields said he has been disappointed in the way the BBI has handled the Burton Hirsch matter, and pointed The Chronicle to Pittsburgh’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority’s Final Report assessing the BBI, which was published in October 2008. The report, issued by the ICA, as the BBI’s oversight board, confirms the BBI is functioning on a sub-par level, to the detriment of the city, said Shields.
“I read this report, and I almost cried,” Shields said.
The report states, in part:
“As an organization, BBI is in severe distress. BBI has unclear lines of supervision and responsibilities are often assigned to more than one person. BBI needs to refine its organization and management structure…. The transfer of fire prevention to BBI was not implemented effectively. As a result the city’s fire code enforcement program is not working well and the acting chief is overburdened trying to manage the agency and oversee fire code enforcement.”
The report also found, “BBI is currently an organization in distress…. Accountability of inspectors, who are unsupervised much of the time, is also a problem…. BBI’s internal culture is such that accountability is a major issue and there is little oversight of the daily work activities of inspectors, who leave the office midmorning and do not return until the next business day. Inspectors are issued radios but they do not have cell phones, which is very uncommon in other cities.”
The full report can be found at www.pghica.org.
“Running a city is about management,” said Shields, “not press releases and good news. It’s about doing things in a timely manner. BBI is a work in progress right now.”
Pursuant to the city code chapter on fire loss claims, Shields said, the City of Pittsburgh had the authority to order its own demolition of the building, and then be reimbursed by Service Corporation International’s insurer.
“When you’re the mayor,” Shields continued, “you better know what the day-to-day requirements are, and if your administration is ready to deliver. If you can’t manage the aspect of getting a building torn down, how are you going to get to the big stuff?”
Shields said that the delay in the Burton Hirsch demolition is symptomatic of much larger problems, and can be directly traced to a struggling BBI.
“Burton Hirsch is a symptom of what’s been identified as a distressed bureau that’s having trouble performing. That [ICA] report is the answer to the ‘why’. “
The BBI’s Loy said that the delay in the funeral home’s demolition was due to Service Corporation International’s indecisiveness on what to do with the property.
“We went to the corporate people, and no one could make a decision. They said they were deciding whether to re-build or to raze months ago. It seemed to drag on forever and ever. We were trying to work with these people in good faith, but they seemed to drag their feet on things. And they had the means to either raze or re-build.”
“They do have a demolition permit now,” Loy continued, “and they are razing the building. What they’re going to do with the property, I have no idea.”
A spokesperson from Service Corporation International could not be reached for comment.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)