What’s the future of Philly’s iconic Roundhouse? Officials seek community input
The iconic Police Administration Building will soon be vacant. Its future will be informed by a public engagement process expected to stir painful memories of its past.
In the coming weeks, the Roundhouse will be completely empty, ending its six-decade reign as the headquarters of the Philadelphia Police Department.
But as the force settles into its new space on North Broad Street, the next chapter for the iconic city-owned building at 7th and Race streets remains unwritten. City officials say demolishing the handcuff-esque property is a possibility, but so is an adaptive reuse project that leaves the concrete structure standing.
A big reason for that: a months-long community engagement process has yet to play out.
Ian Litwin, the city’s project manager for “Framing the Future of the Roundhouse,” said public input will influence the request for proposal the city releases to potential developers next spring.
“This is not just checking a box of community engagement,” said Litwin. “This is a real process we’re undertaking.”
The city has hired Connect the Dots, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm, to lead the way. On Thursday, the company will welcome residents to nearby Franklin Square Park for the first of several community events organized to gather public sentiment toward the Roundhouse, a property some say is steeped in misconduct and scandal.
People can drop by the park to express their opinions anytime between 1 and 5 p.m. They’ll be able to share them in writing, through a speech, or by creating some art, including by contributing to a mural that will come together by the end of the engagement process in December.
Additionally, residents can opt to share their thoughts online or over the phone at 267-225-0698.
“We’re trying to really just give that space to air out the history and air out the stories, and give that space for whatever comes of that,” said Connect the Dots founder Marisa Denker.
The Roundhouse, officially known as the Police Administration Building, was completed in 1961 during a period known as urban renewal. At the time, its curvilinear shape, designed by notable architecture firm Geddes Brecher Qualls, was considered a concrete marvel of sorts here and across the country.
In subsequent decades, however, the building became a source of pain for many residents. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, homicide detectives obtained a number of false confessions through coercion, said civil rights attorney David Rudovsky.
There were also documented cases of police holding witnesses for hours when there was no probable cause to support their detention.
“I represented one woman who was held for close to 48 hours at the Roundhouse for not giving police the information they thought she had,” said Rudovsky.
The department has taken steps to ensure people don’t have those experiences, including a new directive in 2013. But Rudovsky said, “people still remember what happened before.”
Litwin, with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said some residents see the Roundhouse as a proxy for the department’s deficiencies, including its longstanding difficulties improving police-community relations, particularly in communities of color where mistrust of police tends to run high.
The city is spending a total of $200,000 on the entire engagement process, which Denker said also includes focus groups and formal interviews with stakeholders.
To Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, co-director of POWER Live Free, which helped usher in the new Citizens Police Oversight Commission, there are more pressing issues than the future of a soon-to-be-empty building — issues that could benefit from $200,000 of city funding, including more implicit bias training for police officers.
“While I appreciate conversation, and even appreciate the thought behind this, we don’t have the money for it,” said Tyler.
In an email, city spokesperson Bruce Bohri called the community engagement process “a worthwhile pursuit and responsible use of City funds.”
“This development process will impact Philadelphia for decades to come. For this site in particular, which holds significant meaning for so many Philadelphians, it is important for us to acknowledge the past and find the right project for the future,” said Bohri.
Connect the Dots expects to release a report detailing its findings in early 2023.
The city, which has yet to appraise the site, intends to sell the property at some point next year.
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