The former Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. is West Philadelphia’s abandoned landmark. The 325,000 sq. ft. building at the corner of 46th and Market streets sits on a 15-acre plot of land and stands at a hulking six stories. It quite literally casts a massive shadow over a huge swath of West Philly.
The life insurance company hasn’t occupied the building since 1983. Today, the structure sits behind a chain link fence that has weeds growing through it and “no trespassing” notices every 30 yards or so. Trash is everywhere. Signs hang on the outside that indicate the building is under construction and is “Another Milestone in Philadelphia’s Progress.”
But that construction — initiated under former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration — has halted. The building was to be the new home of the Philadelphia Police Department, but that plan was foiled under Mayor Jim Kenney, who took office in January 2016 and whose administration spearheaded the process of moving the police to a different location: The former home of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a white tower at 400 N. Broad St. that will keep police in Center City.
Some community leaders in West Philadelphia say they were blindsided. Not only did they spend years anticipating the economic boon that the “Public Safety Services Campus” could bring to the developing neighborhood, but they say they were left in the dark throughout the process and found out only through media reports that the Kenney administration was pulling the plug on the future of 4601 Market.
“That was sort of like watching a balloon collapse when that thing fell apart,” Barry Grossbach, the zoning committee chair of the Spruce Hill Community Association, said. “People were genuinely outraged and felt the city has an obligation to do right by this neighborhood.”
So the building will remain vacant, probably for years to come. In the meantime, community leaders will be concerned about the safety of the area. They remain disappointed that they’ll lose out on the economic benefits of the police headquarters sitting squarely in their neighborhood. And they just want a say in what happens next.
Soon, they might get it.
What’s happening now
At the beginning of August, leaders from three community associations that both sit on top of and abut the area around 46th and Market sent a letter to Kenney expressing “how upset and disappointed” they were that the city pulled the police headquarters redevelopment project out of West Philadelphia, particularly after spending $50 million in taxpayer money to begin construction on the space.
Leaders from community associations representing Spruce Hill, Walnut Hill and Garden Court signed the letter dated Aug. 8, and in it, they criticized the “stunning” move, and wrote that the city opted “for a Center City location in partnership with a private developer, instead of continuing a transformative neighborhood revitalization project.”
“That doesn’t mean,” they wrote, “that we don’t have the right to be heard or that we should be ignored.”
They requested the city “make good on its commitment” to redevelop the space “in a timely manner,” that they engage the community in the process, that the city consider safety implications of leaving it vacant, and that any new developer be held accountable to elements of the original plan, including local hiring and minority contracting.
Maurice Jones, president of the Garden Court Community Association, and Margaret Livingston, president of the Walnut Hill Community Association, both said last week they hadn’t heard back from the city. In the meantime, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation last week issued a Request for Qualifications for the property, indicating it’s open to outright selling, leasing or engaging in a public-private partnership as it relates to the future reuse of the space.
Then, the community organizations finally heard back.
On Friday morning, Billy Penn reached out to Kenney’s spokeswoman Lauren Hitt regarding the community leaders’ concerns. She said the administration “was engaged with Councilwoman [Jannie] Blackwell’s office throughout the decision making process, which is typically how we engage the community with matters such as these.” Hitt included the text of Kenney’s response to the community groups, which indicated the City has “received significant interest in 4601 Market” and that “there will be a process to gather community input on the proposals.”
At 2:15 p.m. Friday, Jones received an email from Kenney that assured the community leaders they would be engaged in the process of reviewing proposals for the development of the property. When asked about the timing of the mayor’s response, Hitt said Kenney’s office received the original letter on Aug. 17, and the administration attempts to respond to all constituent letters within about two weeks.
In the letter, Kenney also addressed the pivot to North Broad Street, writing it was selected because “it would provide taxpayers more value for their money” and “because it is more accessible to the public and facilitates more efficient operations for the City and our criminal justice partners.”
The RFQ for 4601 Market will be open until Nov. 1, and the administration wrote in its letter back to the community organizations that more details on gathering their input on the proposals will be released “in the coming weeks.”
“This was the type of thing we were looking for from the administration,” Jones said, “and is a step in the right direction.”
Blackwell said “the administration made its plans and that was the way that was,” but said she’s looking forward to facilitating communication between her office, the administration and community leaders in her district before any proposal is accepted.
“Certainly the community has a right to be included in any plans,” she said, “and we’ll make sure that happens.”
How we got here
In October 2014, Nutter, former Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and a contingent of other city leaders stood at 4601 Market with their shovels for a photo op. It was the official “groundbreaking,” a ceremony to mark a day that community leaders in West Philly had long-awaited.
For years, representatives from Nutter’s administration met with community associations in the area and assured them the “Public Safety Services Campus” — which was to include the police, the medical examiner’s office, the morgue and the Department of Health Laboratory Services — would happen. Police have wanted to move out of their current space known as the “Roundhouse” located at Eighth and Race streets.
“When they said the police headquarters would be in that area,” Jones said, “we said ‘oh, that’s a perfect fit.’”
The plan for redevelopment was detailed down to what certain offices would look like and what sorts of trees would be planted on the property. Since 2014, the city poured $50 million into improvements of both the building and the site itself, including removing interior walls, flooring, wiring and fixtures; demolishing the 37,000 sq. ft. Auditorium Building; installing temporary power service and lights; demolishing and re-installing the roof and windows and restoring the exterior masonry.
But rumors started circulating that the police were looking toward a move elsewhere and, by May 2016, fives months into Kenney’s tenure as mayor, Philadelphia Magazine reported the administration was considering a move to 400 N. Broad St. The building often referred to as the “Tower of Truth” has been vacant since the media company left in 2011 and developer Bart Blatstein bought it in the hopes of opening a casino with a rooftop village (that’s not happening). The newspapers moved out and are now headquartered at Eighth and Market.
It was no secret a sizable contingent of the police department didn’t want to be in West Philadelphia. While the campus at 4601 Market would have been literally steps from a stop along the Market-Frankford line, Center City locations are closer to City Hall, the Criminal Justice Center and the federal courthouse.
Now what’s left to be seen — beyond what will come of the property itself — is whether or not the city will recoup the $50 million it spent on a project it ended up abandoning. The city’s director of planning and development has already told The Inquirer it probably won’t.
What might come next?
More than 40,000 West Philadelphians live within a half-mile radius of 4601 Market. Many of them, according to Grossbach, don’t want to wait another 10 or 15 years to see something happen with the site. He said the city “owes it to this neighborhood to move it to the top of its list.”
“You have this very large piece of land with a very prominent building which has, up to this point, not been successfully found for some adaptive reuse,” he said. “It’s sitting at a location with a major transit stop in an area that cries out for some kind of economic stimulus and development.”
Maybe that’s apartments. Perhaps it’s offices. Or even commercial.
Lorna Peterson — who works in community development with the Enterprise Center, an organization located near 46th and Market that’s dedicated to developing minority-owned businesses — said the Center’s been in contact with community associations and residents for months who just want to move on with what’s coming next.
“While we may never learn the ‘why,’ we’d like to move forward… and we would like to hear about the future of that building,” she said. “Having an empty building there really stunts the growth.”
The community association leaders Billy Penn spoke with didn’t necessarily have a preference in terms of what the space becomes. They just want something there, soon, and with the input of the residents they represent.
“In an ideal world, I would like to see this become a police headquarters,” Livingston said. “Other than that, I would like to see something done with that building, other than it standing there vacant.”