The Philadelphia Police Department is relocating its headquarters from its current location on the corner of Race and North 7th Streets to the former Inquirer building at 400 North Broad St. Located in Chinatown, near Franklin Square, the large, soon to be vacant land parcel has created an opportunity for significant development.
“It would just be simpler if we just sold the parcel and moved on, but I don’t know if that’s possible,” Ian Litwin, Center City planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, said. “You know, we would probably get a lot of flack for that.”
Chinatown residents and board members discussed the future of the PPD Headquarters, also known as “the Roundhouse” because of the sloping, brutalist curves that comprise the building’s main structure, at a Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) Planning Committee meeting on February 8.
Litwin was in attendance as a part of a city-wide outreach initiative looking for community feedback to decide what to do with the former PPD headquarters.
“We don’t really know what the process is going to look like yet because we don’t have a consultant on board,” Litwin said. “PCDC has been asking us about the future of that building for years now, so I thought it was best to give them an update.”
“Some people probably never thought about what do we do with this after the police don’t need it either,” Litwin said. “Because it seems like it’s always been there, but there was a neighborhood there before urban renewal built, you know, a bunch of these facilities like this.”
RFPs give City officials an opportunity to review different developers’ visions for a project, while also incorporating community feedback as an expectation developers’ plans should meet.
The Community Outreach RFP is accepting proposal submissions until March 14. All submissions can be sent to Litwin at Ian.Litwin@phila.gov.
“We don’t know any of what that’s going to be yet,” Litwin said. “So, we’re doing this process to figure out, you know, how people feel about the building itself and the future of the parcel.”
The Department of Public Property has put a hard deadline on the RFP decision for this December, with a private consultant to be contracted in the coming months.
Litwin explained that the first phase of this engagement effort involves a series of meetings with communities around Philadelphia to hear what residents would like to see done with the now vacant parcel of land that takes up an entire city block.
PCDC meeting attendees expressed a desire to see the parcel become affordable housing. Cecilia Moy Yep, a founding board member of PCDC echoed these concerns.
“We need multi-family affordable housing,” she said. “That is the only way our community will grow.”
Affordable housing is a major goal included in PCDC’s 2017 Chinatown Neighborhood Plan, which outlines the organization’s vision for Chinatown for the next 10 years.
Yue Wu, a neighborhood planning and project manager at PCDC, explained how affordable housing is vital to Chinatown’s “Built Environment,” the first of the three major areas of focus in the Neighborhood Plan.
“For the Built Environment, we prioritize affordable housing and open space,” Wu said. “For affordable housing, we would like to preserve the neighborhood and the key component is to help the residents to stay in the neighborhood. That’s why affordable housing is very important for Chinatown.”
So far, Litwin said, the most vocal group has been preservationists who wish to see the Roundhouse, an example of mid-century brutalist architecture, stay intact.
“In the architecture community, many see the building as architecturally significant, just because of the architecture of the building itself,” he explained. “However, it’s not on any historic register so it doesn’t have any historic protection. So, I think the preservation of the building most likely will be left up to whoever it is that eventually redevelops the parcel.”
Litwin expressed doubts that strict preservation would best serve the immediate community or the city at large. He said that the parcel will most likely be split into multiple sections, with part being sold to a private developer and another segment reserved for the project covered by the RFP.
The decision to move the PPD headquarters to the former Inquirer Building was made and budgeted for before the COVID-19 pandemic, with the expectation that the city would receive some revenue from the sale of the Roundhouse parcel.
“[Revenue will] go to reimburse the city for the cost of moving the police in the first place,” Litwin said.
Litwin emphasized his desire for complete transparency during the planning process as well as his fear of overpromising what can feasibly be done with the current budget and timeline.
“If there’s some things that come out of this process that people want to see that the City thinks is financially feasible and worthwhile, those will be included,” he said. “And then the developers who respond to the RFP would have to include that in their project.”
Yue Wu is hopeful to collaborate with the City Planning Commission and incorporate aspects of the 2017 neighborhood plan, but still expressed doubt on how responsive the city will be once the outreach is over.
“I think this engagement process is definitely necessary,” she said. “But I share the skepticism of how much influence the community actually has.”
Community engagement is largely taking place virtually, but PIDC recently published a Q&A on their website where residents can learn more about the project.
For Litwin, feedback from citizens and community members is crucial for the long-term success of whatever comes to the Roundhouse site.
“It’s definitely a heavy lift,” he said. “And I think if we get the right team on board, and we set expectations early of what the process is and is not, it will be a success.”
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