The Philadelphia Historic Commission denied plans for a new police station in North Philadelphia on Friday, as activists in the city and across the country call for cuts to police funding while decrying police brutality following the killing of George Floyd.
In written and oral comments before and during the commission’s meeting Friday, about 130 people voiced their opposition to the proposed $20 million home of the 22nd Police District in a primarily black community. Opponents condemned a lack of city engagement with the community about the station and the city’s focus on policing instead of expanding opportunities for social services, housing, and green space in the neighborhood.
The commission agreed with opponents that plans to relocate the district’s police station to 2100 Diamond St. did not fit with the residential feel of the Diamond Street Historic District, and called the application inadequate by a 7-2 vote with one abstention. And members recognized residents’ frustration and anger over the project and the nature of the current moment, in which city residents have joined national protests over police violence and systemic racism.
Robert Thomas, chair of the commission, said people were concerned about the larger issue of having the police station in that location, “not about the color of the brick or architecture or anything else."
“While a discussion of architectural details would be certainly very appropriate on another project or another time, we absolutely have to recognize where we are and what’s going on right now,” he said.
“This is an extraordinary time,” he said. “We are the Historical Commission. We’re living through a very important moment in history.” And, he said, that requires the commission to think beyond architectural standards and building colors and numbers of trees.
Mayor Jim Kenney said this week that he would eliminate a planned $19 million increase in the police budget after activists and City Council members objected to the boost in funding while other city departments face cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic. North Philadelphia is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Kimberly Washington, a member of the commission, said the proposed police station would be in “stark contrast” to neighboring residential properties and proposed that the commission use its ability to regulate the historic district as a way to stop the project.
Oscar Beisert, a preservationist and director of the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, also objected to the construction and architecture of “this type of building" in the middle of a street that is largely rowhouses.
“The neighborhood deserves something better, and something that’s more appropriate and residential,” he said.
The site is mostly vacant and has been for about 20 years, since the city deemed buildings there imminently dangerous and had them demolished. Plans for the site include surface parking, a public art installation, some green space, a bikeshare station, and the demolition of a few dilapidated buildings.
"Is this public building the best and highest use on the historic corridor, especially with all that parking?” asked Judith Robinson, a resident and preservationist who represents the 32nd Democratic Ward and opposes the police station.
The 22nd District covers an area from 10th Street to 33rd Street and Poplar Street to Lehigh Avenue.
The 22nd District’s current home is at 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue. Plans for a replacement came from the city’s “comprehensive review of police buildings” and plans for the neighborhood as a whole, said Michelle Shuman, a design and construction project manager for the city. She highlighted that the station would be the first with a dedicated community room and have a diversion office to direct low-level offenders to social services. It also would be more environmentally friendly and energy efficient than the current police building.
If the commission had approved the project, plans also would have had to go through the zoning process and public meetings.