Members of Put People First! PA protest in front of the shuttered Hahnemann Hospital on Apr. 2, 2020

Activists staged protests and dropped highway banners on Thursday calling for the seizure of the shuttered Hahnemann Hospital from multimillionaire owner Joel Freedman.

Most government leaders, with the exception of Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym, continue to say the former medical facility in Center City is not a good overflow option for COVID-19 patients.

That includes Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who was pulled into the conversation this week.

“It’s our understanding that the physical condition of the facility would require significant efforts to allow it to be used as a clinical setting during a surge,” Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger told Billy Penn.

Once home to 496 hospital beds, the tower at Broad and Race streets has been sitting vacant since September of last year. Philly Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration says it would require considerable work to make it usable for patients again.

After the city cut off negotiations to rent the building from Freedman, saying the landlord was trying to “maximize his profits,” Gym sparked calls to use eminent domain to take the building. Eminent domain is a tool that governments use to seize private property for a public project — while paying the owner fair market value.

Kenney dismissed the idea.

“It is a lengthy and complicated process under state law and we also don’t have that sort of time,” Kenney said last week. “We don’t have the need to own it, nor the resources to buy it.”

Some groups are still clinging to the concept.

Put People First! PA, a grassroots human rights organization, staged a protest on Thursday outside the former hospital. “We believe that the city should seize the Hahnemann building by emergency order,” said Clarissa O’Connor, a local medical student with the group.

It might sound dramatic, but that move is backed up, at least partially, by Pennsylvania eminent domain law.

According to commonwealth statute, if the city were to condemn the property, officials could access the facility relatively quickly and let the courts work out the price later.

Councilmember Gym, known for her progressive politics, said that’s worth looking into.

“As we review all available options, the city has an opportunity to reclaim Hahnemann Hospital as a key public asset during a major public emergency.” Gym said in a statement emailed Thursday. “We are the largest city in the country without a public hospital.”

Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Activists: Let the state handle the court battle

The Kenney administration remains adamant it doesn’t have time or resources to deal with a court battle.

“The mayor and Managing Director [Brian Abernathy] are solely focused on mitigating the spread of the virus, and in expanding Philadelphia’s response capacity to a potential surge in cases,” said city spokesperson Mike Dunn.

Instead, the city turned to Temple, which donated use of the Liacouras Center. The sports and concert arena has been outfitted with 250 beds.

If the city can’t handle the logistics of a court battle over Hahnemann, could the commonwealth? That’s the suggestion of the Philly Socialists, a left-wing political group.

“We believe that Governor Wolf and the state government should step in to seize the property, a power that they hold after declaring a disaster emergency last month,” activist Kaitlin Buck said. “The commonwealth has more resources than the city to deal with any potential legal challenges mounted by Joel Freedman.”

Wolf’s emergency declaration, made on Mar. 6, gives the governor authority to “commandeer or utilize any private, public or quasi-public property if necessary to cope with the disaster emergency.”

His administration didn’t rule it out. A health department spokesperson told WHYY last week that all options remain on the table, though Wolf’s spokesperson indicated to Billy Penn it’s not on the front burner due to Hahnemann’s deteriorating physical condition.

“Right now, we are doing everything we can to increase our healthcare capacity,” spokesperson Kensinger said. “That is why the mitigation efforts being taken by the administration are so important. We need people to stay calm, stay home, and stay safe.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation, including the membership program. She is a former food and...