As the elevated subway car rolls into the nearby station, the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. building sits perfectly silent, serving as a nod to Walnut Hill’s storied past.
The sprawling 15-acre site has been mostly dormant since the Philadelphia-based insurance company left it behind nearly three decades ago. Overgrown trees cover the courtyard and the black iron gates have long rusted. A no trespassing sign warns away outsiders, although most of the windows are boarded up anyway.
Last month, Mayor Michael Nutter announced plans to revitalize the building at 46th and Market streets and in turn create a sizable impact on the West Philadelphia neighborhood. In his annual budget address to City Council, Nutter revealed a plan to move the city’s police headquarters to the vacant building from its current site at Eighth and Race streets in Center City.
Along with police headquarters, Nutter said the 86-year-old building will be home to the city’s morgue and health offices, both located at Broad and Lombard streets. The headquarters will be a block from the new Youth Study Center, which is slated to open in early 2013 at 48th and Haverford streets.
“This is a smart consolidation,” said Nutter in his March address. “Which will allow us to sell existing assets, create new opportunities for development at those sites, and revitalize part of West Philadelphia much in need of investment.”
City Councilwoman Janine L. Blackwell of the 3rd District said the building has been an “albatross” to her district and expects the project to be a “win-win for everyone.” She said most people have supported the move, while others are weary of having such a large police presence in the neighborhood.
“Some people don’t want law enforcement facilities in their area, some people do,” Blackwell said. “I venture to say you know your area will be safe, they’re right there.”
In 1983, Provident Mutual vacated West Philadelphia and moved its offices to 1600 Market St. in Center City. Valued at $35 million, the West Philadelphia building was donated to Urban Education Foundation of Philadelphia, an organization led by Cheyney and Lincoln Universities. The insurance company left the city entirely in 1995 and moved its employees to Newark, Del.
The two historically black universities planned to turn the building into a joint-urban campus, but plans never materialized. Instead, it became the Center for Human Advancement, under the leadership of former State Representative and current State Senator Vincent Hughes. A coalition of non-profit groups held offices in a small section of the building before the city repossessed the building in 2008 as the group was no longer able to make mortgage payments.
Blackwell said the building has become run down and neighbors were nervous it would be unable to find a new tenant. The move of Police Headquarters won’t be simple, as the councilwoman said the building has lead paint, asbestos, a leaky roof and heating and cooling problems. The city hasn’t announced an estimated construction cost, but said that once construction begins it will take two years.
“There’s always been a worry about that building,” Blackwell said. “Because it’s such a historic building, such a beautiful building, but it needed work so very, very long. Most people would like to see something done because of its pivotal location.”
Horace S. Patterson, the president of the Walnut Hill Community Association, said he expects the presence of the building to create jobs in the area and help boost economic growth. He predicted the restaurants and delis that already line Market Street and nearby 52nd Street will see an upswing in business and local residents could be employed at both the Youth Study Center and Police Headquarters.
“I believe the spinoff will be humongous,” Patterson said. “The stores in the community will benefit greatly economically. It’ll bring people into the neighborhood, who will spend money here.”
Along with nearby bus stops and trolley lines, the headquarters will be less than a block from the 46th Street Station of SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Transportation Line. The site’s proximity to public transportation made it an attractive location to the city’s site selection committee, Patterson said.
Patterson said the response from his group has been positive, as it, like Blackwell, feared the building would forever stay empty. He said the community has a good relationship with the Police Department and doesn’t expect a difference in policing West Philadelphia due to the presence of the headquarters.
“I welcome the Philadelphia Police Department taking over, fixing it up, cleaning it up, cutting the grass and making it a beautiful site to everybody’s eyes,” Patterson said.
Walnut Hill-resident Tonya Goode said she was glad to hear the Police Department was moving into the neighborhood and hoped it would increase the community’s safety.
“It’s nice that they’re moving in here,” Goode said. “It should make everyone more aware and the area safer.”
Philadelphia Police spokeswoman Officer Tonya Little said the presence of Police Headquarters would not have a large-scale impact on the community, as there are already districts in the area. Further attempts to contact the police department and Fraternal Order of Police were unsuccessful.
According to statistics reported by the police department and complied by the University of Pennsylvania, the zip code of the future Police Headquarters (19139) ranked in the top five in 2009 in aggravated assaults and robberies. The site is located in the 16th Police District and is two blocks east of the 18th District’s border.
“We have our issues, but I don’t think it’s as bad as others,” Patterson said.