After Mayor Jim Kenney spirited the bronze statue of Frank Rizzo from the steps of the Municipal Services Building last Wednesday, cheers rippled through the crowds that were assembling in Philadelphia for another day of protest. At long last, a hated symbol of police brutality and racial division was gone. But only a few hours later, the Art Commission sat down to consider the creation of a different symbol of police power: a new station house in North Philadelphia, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
As the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd have gathered steam and public support, the message has expanded from calls to end police brutality to demands for reductions in bloated police budgets. “Defund the police” is now a rallying cry. Those calls are resonating. On the same day that Kenney removed the statue of the former mayor and police commissioner, Los Angeles announced that it would redirect at least $100 million from the police budget to other programs. The Minneapolis City Council went even further, and voted to disband the department and reconstitute it in another form.
In Philadelphia, 14 of the 17 City Council members also are calling for a major overhaul of police practices. They issued a joint letter Monday demanding a “rebalancing” of budget priorities away from police and prisons, which now consume a quarter of the city budget. To his credit, Kenney responded almost immediately, slicing $19 million from the Police Department’s allocation.
Even with those cuts, the mayor’s latest budget, which was hastily drawn up to account for pandemic-induced declines in revenue, still prioritizes policing over almost every other neighborhood service the city offers. When you look at what will be hacked from the city’s housing programs, parks and libraries, the nips and tucks to the police budget look like a token gesture.
Meanwhile, Kenney’s initial budget recommended increasing the department’s construction spending by $11 million to $62 million. A good chunk of that money will be used to build a new home for the 22nd District, which covers a vast band of North Philadelphia between 10th and 33rd Streets. The two-story building will cost at least $20 million. It will be located in the West Diamond Street corridor, at the western end of North Philadelphia’s most significant historic district, an imposing stretch of vermilion-colored townhouses, stately brownstones, and monumental stone churches. Most of the design work is done, and the project will be presented to the Historical Commission for a final review on Friday.
The Historical Commission, unfortunately, only has the power to evaluate the police station on its architectural merits, and the design is the least important thing wrong with this project. Given the long-overdue conversation about police practices and spending — not to mention the pain that will be inflicted by Kenney’s austerity budget — it is hard to believe the city is still pushing ahead with this costly new station house.
On top of that, it appears that many neighborhood residents were left out of the decision-making process — as is often the case with matters involving police. While city officials held an informational meeting last fall with St. Elizabeth’s Registered Community Organization, that is just one of several civic groups that dot the neighborhood.
I spoke to four neighborhood residents — all of them longtime activists — and each told me they were never consulted about the location of the new police station, the selection of the architect (Ballinger), or the design of the building. They are appalled that the city wants to put a beige brick building into a historic district renowned for its rich red brick and that the police station will be flanked by two enormous surface parking lots.
“The first time I saw the design was in the newsletter that [Council President] Darrell L. Clarke sends out,” Gail Loney told me. A block captain for the 2200 block of Lambert Street, Loney lives one street north of the police station site. “Clarke’s office knew I was looking for a meeting. Every time I saw his aide, I’d ask him about it.”
Both Jackie Wiggins and Judith Robinson, who are members of the 32nd Ward Committee, which does double duty as a neighborhood civic group, also told me they were never invited to the meeting with St. Elizabeth’s. Even if they had attended, a single community meeting is hardly enough for a project of this magnitude.
Clarke, who is Council president as well as the representative for North Philadelphia, did not respond to requests for comment, but it seems unlikely that this project would be going forward without his blessing. Because of Philadelphia’s antiquated tradition of councilmember prerogative, the Kenney administration would have needed his sign-off in 2018 to acquire the land for the police station.
Nor would any city officials speak to me on the record about the project. One insider did tell me privately that the station is a “good project” that will offer several public amenities — a community meeting room, a small plaza, a public ATM, an art installation, and bike racks.
While those gestures are nice, they’re hardly a compelling case for this project. Like so many recent government buildings in Philadelphia, the police station design looks bloodless and dull next to the exuberant 19th century buildings that surround it. The site, between 21st and 22nd, is just a few blocks west of the magnificent Church of the Advocate, a soaring French Renaissance cathedral. While police stations certainly need parking for squad cars and commuters, the two enormous surface lots will do nothing to make Diamond Street more walkable. They merely demonstrate the city’s willingness to squander land in North Philadelphia.
Then there is the issue of whether the city really needs a new home for the 22nd District. The existing station house at 17th and Montgomery opened in 1961. A large Modernist building, it also has a community room and two parking lots. Several people familiar with the station say it is cramped and unpleasant. In a time of austerity, it’s worth asking if it can be renovated at a lower cost.
“We need to do a global revaluation of how we allocate resources,” said Democratic State Sen. Sharif Street, who represents North Philadelphia in Harrisburg. Instead of always giving police projects top priority, he suggested that a portion of their budget might be better spent on social workers, job training and other programs that would steer people away from criminal activities. That’s the same argument made by supporters of defunding police departments.
It’s also worth noting three other police stations are within a few blocks of the Diamond Street site, run by Temple University, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and SEPTA. “How come you got all this police power and you’re not reducing murders?" asked Robinson.
The 22nd District project isn’t the first time in recent years that the city has poured money into an expensive police building. Three years ago, Kenney announced that he was scuttling a Nutter administration plan to move police headquarters to a historic building at 46th and Market, even though more than $50 million had already been spent on renovations. Instead, he made a deal with developer Bart Blatstein to turn the former Inquirer Building on North Broad Street into the department’s home base. That’s costing the city an additional $280 million.
“We’re always being told what is to be done in our neighborhoods,” Loney complained. “I’m tired of taxation without representation.”