Philadelphia spent nearly $50 million over the last three years on construction and designs for a new police headquarters in West Philadelphia.
Contractors gutted and rehabbed the old Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. at 4601 Market St. and developed plans so detailed that arborists had selected the types of trees and shrubs to dot the property.
Last month Mayor Kenney announced he would scrap those plans in favor of moving police to 400 N. Broad St., the former home of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com. The city offered several reasons for the move: The building is large enough to include two district police stations (the Sixth and the Ninth), a toxicology lab, office functions, the emergency dispatch center, and the morgue.
The North Broad Street location has a parking garage, which the other building did not have. And the location, Police Commissioner Richard Ross has said, is more central and convenient for officers, many of whom live in the Northeast.
But whether the $50 million can ever be recouped remains to be seen. Kenney's office has said the city hopes to recover money through the sale of the West Philadelphia building and other city properties that can be consolidated as a result of the new plan.
City Council approved up to $250 million in borrowing in 2014 to develop the 15-acre campus for the Police Department, the medical examiner, and other Health Department offices.
Since then, dozens of contractors have worked inside the neoclassical building in West Philadelphia.
It cost $4 million to purchase the property and about $13 million for gutting and cleaning, environmental remediation, demolition, and electrical work. About $11 million was spent to redo the roof and facade, and $18 million covered design work.
The public property commissioner, Bridget Collins-Greenwald, said aspects of the design can be reused in the new space. All the rehabbing makes the building more valuable to buyers, she said.
"These are things we think will make that property marketable now," Collins-Greenwald said. "It's weather-tight. It's more sellable."
Everett Gillison, a former deputy mayor who worked on the West Philadelphia plan under Mayor Michael Nutter, said he was surprised by the decision to move to North Broad Street. Gillison said the designs were too specific to the Market Street space to replicate in a new location.
"It made no sense to me because of all of the evaluations and efforts that were made. … For us, this was a four-, five-, maybe even six-year move," Gillison said. "This was the largest project we would undertake. It was a lot of work."
Gillison said a 3D model provided floor-by-floor renderings of the building including "design features, color, carpeting, almost down to the kind of desks and what the commissioner's office would look like."
Center City locations, including the North Broad site, were considered at the time, Gillison said, but the planning team favored a less centralized location, to bring economic development to the West Philadelphia neighborhood. There were also security reasons for keeping the police away from Center City and separate from emergency dispatch, which will move into the North Broad Street building.
"I wanted to make sure you didn't have everything in one facility, in case it were to go down," Gillison said.
Police are slated to move from the dilapidated four-story building at 750 Race St, known as the Roundhouse, by spring 2020.
The city has estimated the sale of the Roundhouse, the Medical Examiner's Office, and the Sixth District headquarters at 11th and Vine Streets could bring in $50 million. The move into the North Broad location, which will house about 1,000 employees, will cost about $290 million, according to city estimates.
"By selling off three city buildings and locating all their functions into one, we are putting three buildings back on the tax roll," city spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said.
Collins-Greenwald said the city hopes for a development deal by the end of the year for the Market Street property. A request for proposals will go out at the end of the month.
Time will tell whether the decision is a waste of taxpayer money or a smart pivot, said Michael Masch, a former city and state budget director.
"If they're able to leverage what they've done to some other use that stimulates economic development in that part of West Philly … it'll be worth it," Masch said. "And if it turns out to have been completely wasted money and the site sits abandoned for a very long time, then that will be unfortunate."
Still, Masch cautioned the city against selling too quickly.
When he was city budget director under Mayor Ed Rendell, the city moved employees out of the City Hall annex building, which sat empty for years, prompting complaints. The building eventually became the Courtyard Marriott.
"Frankly my counsel to the mayor and the administration would be to be patient," Masch said. "They should not do a fire sale on the West Philly site, and they'll take some heat for that, but in the life of cities things move slowly, and these large development projects take time."