New Police headquarters in West Philly means sale for Roundhouse, Health Department buildings

It’s looking ever-more likely that someday the historic Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building at 46th and Market streets will become a new headquarters for the Police, Health Department, and city morgue. 

When Mayor Nutter finally announced the city’s long-rumored intention to reuse the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building in his budget address last year EOTS took a look at 4601 Market’s current state, how we have the Barnes Foundation to thank for the city’s ownership of the property, and what the conversion would mean. In this year’s budget address, Mayor Nutter brought up the project again:

As I announced last year, we will continue our plans for the renovation of 4601 Market Street into a state-of-the-art police headquarters. Co-located at the new Police Headquarters will be the City Morgue and the offices of the Health Center at 500 S. Broad. Co-location will enable us to sell three valuable properties while strengthening the neighborhood of West Philly and creating new jobs.

The new detail this year is the city’s intention to sell off the Roundhouse at 8th and Race, District Health Center #1 at the southwest corner of Broad and Lombard, and the morgue in University City near the hospital campus.

Last week the Inquirer reported that City Budget Director Rebecca Rhynhart said that the city’s large capital projects – the biggest of which is the $195 million conversion of 4601 Market – would be financed with long-term borrowing, and the 4601 Market project would be offset by the sale of the three would-be surplus municipal properties.

Mayor Nutter’s Press Secretary Mark McDonald confirmed that the city would likely consider floating a bond to finance the project, but said it is premature to discuss other financing structures and that the project’s timeline remains unknown. McDonald confirmed that the city plans to sell the Roundhouse, Health District #1, and morgue properties after their functions move to 4601 Market.

Public Property Commissioner Bridget Collins-Greenwald said yesterday that she expects that there will be “some sort of a competitive process” for selling the three would-be surplus properties when the time comes.

For preservation advocates, however, the whole project poses a sticky issue. Finding a new use for the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building has long been supported by the local preservation community. The Roundhouse and Health Department buildings are also seen as important works of municipal modernism that are worthy of preservation attention and adaptive reuse.

“I don’t think they are marginally significant. I think they are among the most important mid-century municipal buildings in the city,” Ben Leech, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, said of the Roundhouse and Health District #1. ” These are iconic buildings.” Which is why the Roundhouse and Health Department buildings were listed in the Preservation Alliance’s 2012 Endangered Properties List

As PlanPhilly reported in January, PennDesign students started a social media campaign to Save the Roundhouse and prepared a nomination for the building’s addition to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The reuse and repair of the Roundhouse was the subject of a PennDesign preservation studio in fall 2012 and is currently the subject of a Georgia Tech architecture studio.

Leech said he hopes that the conversation can be steered away “from the foregone conclusion that these are obsolete buildings.” They may be, he acknowledged, but he hasn’t seen evidence that they’re unredeemable properties. He would like to see both buildings are seriously studied for reuse, instead of simply marketed as raw sites for redevelopment. And since the conversion of 4601 Market sounds like it won’t happen quickly, that could buy the Roundhouse and Health District buildings some time.

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