Kenney, Blackwell Spar Over Iconic W. Philly Building

Filed under: Featured News,Subject Categories |

THE ICONIC Provident Mutual Building at 46th & Market Streets has become a key battleground between mayoral and councilmanic decision-makers. Photo courtesy of West Philly Local.

A rare personal criticism of a City Council member by Mayor Jim Kenney drew attention to a long-stewing neighborhood redevelopment project with citywide implications.

The spectacular Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building at 46th & Market Streets was vacated by that company in 1983. Since then, numerous attempts to repurpose it have been made, none of them successful.

The City acquired the property by default in 2008. In 2014, City Council approved a plan to move the Police Department headquarters from the cramped, obsolete Roundhouse to this space. It was a feather in the cap of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell (3rd District), who has been trying to revitalize this West Philadelphia icon for decades. The City spent $53 million to restore the building’s exterior.

But police officers grumbled about the site, which is three miles away from the city’s courts. The incoming Kenney administration sealed a deal instead for the old Inquirer-Daily News Building on N. Broad Street – which once again turned the West Philly site into a white elephant for the City.

COUNCILWOMAN Jannie Blackwell

Kenney put his weight behind a proposal to sell the building to a consortium that would fill the building with health care facilities for the booming nearby Penn Health System and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, as well as a day-care center run by the YMCA – for a greatly reduced price of $10 million.

That struck Blackwell as a bad deal. In a complex series of legislative maneuvers after the introduction of a bill authorizing the sale, she invoked councilmanic privilege in mid-December to halt the sale pending further hearings.

This happens all the time in Philadelphia public land deals. What was unusual was a ripping attack on the councilwoman’s move by the mayor. Himself an at-large veteran of City Council, Kenney knows better than to launch a direct assault on a district Council member’s customary authority. But he held little back.

MAYOR Jim Kenney

Describing himself as “extremely disappointed” in a statement, the mayor charged that her action “is unfortunate for her own constituents, because it would have brought health care for adults, children and families to West Philadelphia. It would have brought a workforce-development program and summer youth programming. It would have brought an early-childhood education center and a family-fitness center. It would have brought a community garden and community meeting space.

And most importantly, it would have brought hundreds of jobs to a community that very much needs new employment opportunities.”

Kenney claimed that Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. flogged the property diligently in 2017 to more than 60 curious developers. Only one came through in the end without a request for public subsidies, he asserted – the Penn-CHOP-Y project he supports.

Kenney hailed the construction jobs that would be created and promised 2,500 permanent jobs at the new agencies, many to local residents.

Kenney challenged the “myth” that “the City would have lost $42 million on the deal: “Yes, the City has spent $52 million on the property, and yes, it was to receive $10 million back in the sale. However, the City would have received an estimated $158 million in additional revenue over the next 20 years. It would have received property taxes and business-receipts taxes from the developer that it would not have received under the old deal. It would have received new sales-tax revenue from the businesses that locate in the development. The City would have ended up an estimated $40 million ahead with this deal.”

Kenney disputed that the councilwoman had been left in the dark by the administration. “The Councilwoman’s decision to hold the legislation deprives her community of many benefits,” he wrote, “and it leaves a hulking eyesore of a building, vacant and unused, in the heart of her district. Yes, I am very disappointed.”

Those are fighting words to any district Council member. Blackwell takes her constituents’ wishes as a lodestar.

“The community is very concerned about the fate of that property,” Blackwell said. “We held a public meeting at West Philadelphia High School that was attended by 285 people. No one was satisfied with the answers that the administration spokespersons gave. They were vague. They did not give us a clear picture of what that $53 million had been spent on.”

Blackwell also disputes the notion that $10 million is the best deal the city can get for this property in 2018. At the WPHS meeting, she reported, one group of developers spoke out from the audience to offer $15 million for it, strictly for market-rate housing, which is popping up in parts of West Philadelphia east of 52nd Street.

But it was designed as institutional property; and there are other growing institutions in Philadelphia beside the Penn-CHOP-Y trio. Blackwell has talked with others that are interested.

The next public moves will not come until January. It is hard to see how any substantial action can be taken until Council meets again on Jan. 24. Doubtless, though, all sides will be hard at work, starting Jan. 2, find a path forward.

That path will probably involve another public meeting.

Join over 3.000 visitors who are receiving our newsletter and learn how to optimize your blog for search engines, find free traffic, and monetize your website.
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.
Share    Send article as PDF   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *