Roundhouse Redux

Blame for $50M wasted on West Philly Police HQ properly placed at Nutter-Gillison doorstep

(Photo Left) Philly’s “Ivory Tower of Truth” to become one of justice. Photo by Salvatore Patrone.

When developer Bart Blatstein tried to sell the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission on re-siting the Foxwoods Casino to the abandoned Inquirer building on North Broad Street, we called him out for the snake oil he was selling.  Putting a casino within a stones throw of the school district administration building, churches and a hospital emergency room made no sense particularly given the snarled traffic routinely plaguing that section of North Broad.  Blatstein, however, appears to be having the last laugh, as the Kenney administration has now decided to site its new police headquarters on his property.

The move to the “Ivory Tower of Truth” does not come without its own controversy. Kenney’s decision is a reversal of one made by the Nutter administration to put the building in West Philly, on the site of the abandoned Provident Mutual Life building at 46th and Market Street. And what a very expensive reversal it is.

The Nutter administration, led by its No. 2, Everett Gillison, sunk $50 million into the West Philly site on architects, engineers and a full gutting of the site. Of course, this raised the ire of the 6th and Market crowd, who yelled: “Philly can’t afford to waste $50 million on a white elephant.” The Inky Ed. Board opined: “Former Mayor Michael Nutter wanted to turn the building into a new headquarters for police, but his successor, Mayor Kenney, does not. Either way, taxpayers are footing the bill.

It doesn’t make sense, but that has been the story of the building ever since Provident Mutual Life left it in 1983. So, it sits — a 325,000-square-foot hulk on 15 acres just off the Market-Frankford line — like a monument to quiescence.”

What really doesn’t make sense is why Nutter, Gillison and company decided to sink $50 million into the PML building in the first place. The idea to catalyze economic development in West Philly by dropping a quarter billion dollar project might make sense if we weren’t talking about decentralizing a major city’s police operations. 

Such an economic development play makes sense for something like a casino. The centralization of a casino operation is not a public policy decision. If you build a casino, no matter where you build it, they will gamble.  But the Nutter administration never thought to get involved in those local-economy-affecting decisions.

The good intentions that eluded these guys in casino siting was at the heart of the decision to relocate the police administration building to West Philly. As Gillison told the Inquirer: “Center City locations, including the North Broad site, were considered at the time, but the planning team favored a less centralized location, to bring economic development to the West Philadelphia neighborhood.”

The bill enabling the city to borrow $240 million for the West Philly site passed in February 2014, just a little over a year before a new mayor with a new team and a new police commissioner would take charge. Nutter-Gillison’s move to rush the expenditures on the West Philly project rather than wait and collaborate with the incoming administration seems to be motivated by hubris. They desired to put their stamp on the new administration, who they believed would not have the backbone to back out once the $50 million was spent. As Gillison told the Inquirer at the time: “I think this is the biggest investment that has been made in public safety in my years,” he said. “It was one of the things I really wanted to make sure we could accomplish.”

The theory that Nutter and Gillison were trying to force the Kenney administration’s hand is buttressed by the statements made by Gillison in the wake of Kenney’s decision to pull the plug on the PML building.

Gillison told the Inquirer that the expenditures included “a 3D model that provided floor-by-floor renderings of the building, including design features, color, carpeting, almost down to the kind of desks and what the commissioner’s office would look like.”

“It made no sense to me because of all of the evaluations and efforts that were made. … For us, this was a four-, five-, maybe even six-year move. … This was the largest project we would undertake. It was a lot of work.”

No, Mr. Gillison, the decision to sacrifice police administration for economic development was the wrong one and it cost us $50 million.  Kenney’s decision not to throw good money after bad is smart public policy even if the bad is a whopping $50 million.


Roundhouse Redux

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