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12 years after Lincoln Park porch collapse, city aims to speed up permits

Twelve years after a Lincoln Park porch collapse killed 13 young partygoers, Chicago’s Department of Buildings has moved to a “self-certification” process for architects to speed permitting and completion of home improvement projects.

Buildings Department spokeswoman Mimi Simon denied that self-certification was a step back from porch safety for a department blamed for dropping the ball before the Lincoln Park tragedy.

She maintained that, to qualify for self-certification, design professionals must complete a three-day class that includes extensive training on Chicago’s building code. That includes structural components, such as porches, to ensure building safety.

“Allowing self-certification architects to self-certify porches will let building owners who need to make necessary repairs obtain a building permit two weeks faster, making their porches safer,” Simon wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The Department of Buildings will continue to inspect porches prior to approval of the building permit,” she said. “The Department of Buildings inspects approximately 5,000 porches each year as part of annual inspections of buildings. Due to greater awareness and stricter code requirements, the number of 311 complaints about potentially dangerous porches has been reduced over the years.”

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Last year, City Hall fielded 1,923 porch-related complaints and issued 2,405 permits to repair, replace or build new porches.

The number of annual repair, replacement and porch construction permits has “consistently” topped 2,000 for years, which Simon called an “indication that porches are being maintained.” There were 2,028 permits issued in 2012 and 2,494 in 2013.

Thirteen young people died shortly after midnight on June 29, 2003, when a three-story porch pancaked to the ground at 713 W. Wrightwood.

Five annual inspections did not flag the allegedly unpermitted, over-sized porch that collapsed on that fateful night.

Five years later, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that City Hall had quietly scaled back the flurry of porch inspections it had ordered in response to the tragedy.

This porch in Lincoln Park collapsed in 2003, and 13 people died. | Associated Press

Five annual inspections did not flag this allegedly unpermitted, over-sized porch, and 13 people died in June 2003. | Associated Press

The task force of 39 inspectors created to scour the city for shaky porches was “folded back” into the Building Department’s Conservation Bureau to maintain the integrity of existing buildings.

No longer were inspectors assigned to specific “territories” run by project managers armed with “Web-enabled phones” that allowed them to access up-to-date information on whether permits were issued for a specific address.

Porch inspections took place in only three instances: When they were newly constructed or rebuilt; in response to 311 complaints; or during the course of annual inspections for residential properties with four units or more.

Bill McCaffrey, then-spokesman for the Buildings Department, denied that the change amounted to the city playing Russian roulette with porch safety.

“The cause for that task force was well-known. There were concerns. After there had been a certain level of compliance, and we spent enough time inspecting porches, we saw that building owners were taking steps to remedy code violations. They knew we were gonna continue to be diligent. So we felt comfortable bringing that team of inspectors back into the normal Conservation Bureau,” McCaffrey said then.

The self-certification plan is just one of several reforms ordered by newly appointed Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland aimed at moving 1,000 more building permits out the door than her department issued during the same period last year.

To improve what City Hall likes to call “transparency,” business owners, contractors, developers, architects and everyday Chicagoans can now view the average time it takes to receive a building permit on the city’s website.