UPDATED: Councilman delays vote on land purchase for prison replacement

UPDATED, Thurs., May 21: 

On Thursday, Councilman Bobby Henon refrained from calling a vote on a bill he introduced that would authorize the city to negotiate for the purchase of a large waterfront tract in Holmesburg. The city has its eye on building a prison facility there to replace the 140-year-old House of Corrections. The money to actually build that prison—between $300 million and $500 million—would have to be found by a future mayoral administration.  

Henon said that he held the bill to allow his Council colleagues more time to consider it. But there’s also been some political blowback from community members. On Thursday, a handful of witnesses—including independent journalist Faye Anderson, and Peter McDermott of Mayfair Civic Association—asked Council to reject the bill.

How could the city even consider spending money on a new prison when the schools are strapped for cash, Anderson wanted to know. How could the city even consider using such a large tract of waterfront land for a correctional facility, McDermott asked.

The property, as mentioned below, is adjacent to the House of Corrections, and is near Holmesburg Prison and other correctional facilities. Henon rejected the idea that the bill allows the city to spend money on prisons that could otherwise be spent on schools.

“This bill does not authorize any capital expenditures whatsoever,” Henon said after the Council meeting. “It was noted today that we could be building more schools; that’s the School District’s budget authorization. Two separate capital expenditures. Two separate city and School District opportunities for capital improvements.”

He continued, “We have a serious, serious problem of condition with the House of Corrections. I visited the site, it is extremely poor, and things that we are spending millions and millions of dollars on on an annual basis, just to band-aid fix things that are falling down. It’s not safe for anybody in that building to continue on for the near future. so I think it’s our responsibility to at least take a look at and entertain what can be done before the federal government steps in and says, ‘You know what? You’ve got to tear it down. You’ve to to [rebuild] it.’ It’s going to cost us five times as much, and then we’re really in the bucket for a whole lot of resources.”

Original coverage, Tues., May 19:

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission voted on Tuesday to disapprove a bill that authorizes the city to buy a parcel of land on the North Delaware waterfront for the eventual replacement of the House of Corrections, which is adjacent to the property.

As PlanPhilly reported last week, a City Council committee has already approved the bill, which authorizes the Department of Public Property to spend up to $7.2 million to buy the land. The purchase would allow the city to replace the House of Corrections, which is 140 years old. A future mayoral administration would need to figure out how to fund the construction, estimated by Public Property to cost between $300 million and $500 million.

Mayoral candidates Jim Kenney and Anthony Williams both told the Inquirer this week that they oppose building a new prison while the schools remain in ongoing financial crises. The last two times the city built new prisons, it was compelled to do so by the courts, the Inquirer reported.

The bill authorizing the land purchase had the recommendation of the Planning Commission staff. The staff emphasized that the bill wouldn’t dictate the eventual use of the property, and a rezoning bill would have to go back to the Commission before a prison could be constructed there.

But Peter McDermott, a member of the Mayfair Civic Association, said that even approving the land sale would be “helping set the wheels in motion.” McDermott said that a prison facility is the worst possible use of waterfront land that he could imagine. He wants the property to be used for a water-dependent business, like a shipping terminal. Gabriel Gottlieb, a local real estate agent who frequently testifies at Planning Commission meetings, also questioned the pursuit of a waterfront prison.

Commission members seemed to wonder: is a prison really the best way to use the riverway? Shouldn’t planners have a long-term vision about where correctional facilities should go?

The property was previously owned by a private developer who planned to build housing on the site. But the developer defaulted on a loan after the 2008 recession and lost the property to the bank. It’s currently owned by 7777 Philadelphia Pa Loan Associates, a group with a mailing address at a BNP Paribas bank office in New York. The company does not have officers listed, and a BNP spokeswoman has not returned calls from PlanPhilly.

Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger, who was out of the meeting room for most of the discussion, told the Commissioners to go with their instincts. He said the plans for prison construction are in flux anyway, and could be completely different as of tomorrow, a reference to the mayoral election that’s currently underway. In the end, the Commission voted unanimously to oppose the purchase, with one abstention.

At any rate, the Planning Commission’s recommendation is advisory only. City Council could vote on the bill is early as Thursday.

Watch full video of hearing below

7777 State Road site
7777 State Road site

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