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City seeks study of Family Court Building as prelude to redevelopment

After a false start in 2010, the Family Court Building at 1801 Vine Street could be redeveloped yet. First, the city wants to get to know the building a little bit better.

The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), on behalf of the City, issued a Request for Proposals today, seeking a team of professional architects, environmental service, and historic preservation firms complete a documentation and assessment study of 1801 Vine Street.

1801 Vine designed by John Windrim, and made possible through WPA funds.
(1801 Vine designed by John Windrim, and made possible through WPA funds.)

The study of 1801 Vine will ensure the completeness and accuracy of architectural drawings, evaluate the property’s environmental conditions, and analyze the historic fabric and preservation regulations that govern both the Building and its interiors. The results will shape the developer solicitation process to follow.

If there’s one thing developers hate, it’s uncertainty. By clarifying the existing conditions and regulatory limitations that will shape the redevelopment of the Family Court Building, PIDC hopes developers will come forward with more realistic, tailored proposals for the building’s reuse.

This news is an encouraging step back from the rush to develop the property as a luxury hotel/ cultural space in the late days of the Rendell administration. That attempt in 2010 yielded one response, in part because there were too many unanswered questions about the building itself. The city declined to pursue the lone bid.

The Family Court of Philadelphia is moving to a new building under construction at 15th and Arch streets.
(The Family Court of Philadelphia is moving to a new building under construction at 15th and Arch streets.)

Since then, construction of the new Family Court Building at 15th and Arch has started. But once the Family Court moves, the question of what will happen at 1801 Vine remains.

The City still seems interested in seeing 1801 Vine converted into a combined cultural space/hotel. Just today the Inquirer reported that the city is thinking about how to add hotel rooms “strategically” and Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said the city would issue a developer RFP to convert 1801 Vine Street into a hotel in the first quarter of 2012.

The Family Court Building was designed by architect John Windrim as a twin to the main branch of the Free Library across 19th Street, and was built with funds from the Works Progress Administration. The building’s exterior was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1971.

As redevelopment loomed in recent years, preservation advocates were spurred into action to protect the building’s Windrim-designed interiors (including courtrooms, waiting rooms, grand main hall, and staircase) and 37 WPA-era murals that comprise the largest collection of WPA-era public art in PhiladelphiaIn May 2011, these sections of the interior were listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, with unanimous support from the Historical Commission. The interior designation limits what interior alterations are possible in the designated areas, largely on the ground floor.

The Family Court Building is worthy of a creative approach to its reuse. Here’s hoping that developers, armed with a better understanding of 1801 Vine, give it their best shot.

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