On This Day In...1988

Another story from the vault. Did you know there was once talk of Eastern State Penitentiary into a mall? Check it out:

Date: Saturday, Apr 30, 1988


By CYNTHIA BURTON, Daily News Staff Writer

Mayor Goode derailed a $20 million plan to turn Fairmount's abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary into a shopping center yesterday, saying that development plans would destoy its historic value.

At Goode's request, the Redevelopment Authority voted not to award the project to any of the three developers who had proposed changing the old cellblocks into shops. Goode apparently caved in to pressure from historical preservationists, who had complained that all three proposals called for tearing down some prison buildings.

The 159-year-old complex, built on a 11-acre site at 20th Street and Fairmount Avenue was closed as a state prison in 1971. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the prison's most famous inmates was "Slick Willie" Sutton, who made a sensational escape in 1945 when he and 11 others dug a 97-foot tunnel under the 35-foot-high stone walls. They were all rounded up quickly.

The proposal to turn the old prison into a shopping center has pitted neighborhood residents against each other. Some support the project because it would mean jobs and shopping, while others say they don't want heavy trucks rattling down their narrow streets. Several groups want the prison saved as a historic landmark.

"I think that the city is going backwards today," said an angry Raul Serrano, leader of Spring Garden United Neighbors, which favored the project because it would create jobs for the area's low-income residents.

But others were elated by the decision.

"I think it's exactly what we've been looking for," said Carla Walters, of the Fairmount Parents, Business and Neighbors Association, a group that represents local businesses and young professionals who live in the area. The group has complained that the project would disrupt the neighborhood, and recently has opposed it on historical grounds as well.

"I think it's great," said Kenneth Finkel, chairman of the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force, a coalition of organizations that want to save the prison as a historical landmark.

The firm that appeared most likely to get the project, Kode Development Associates, planned to spend $20 million building a supermarket, retail stores, a day-care center and a community center.

In an April 29 letter to the Redevelopment Authority, Goode asked that it reject development proposals because the project "suffers from a lack of demonstrated feasibility." He said that was because developers probably wouldn't get other city approvals and that part of the community opposed it.

Goode met early Wednesday with city development officials. During the meeting, Richard Tyler, the Historical Commission director, disclosed that the commission would not approve any of the three plans to renovate prison.

Because the prison is publicly owned and a historic landmark, the commission's opposition could kill any plans to develop the prison.

Serrano charged that Goode's opposition to the project contradicts a key element of his North Philadelphia Plan, unveiled earlier this month. The plan called developing the prison as a "major goal" for the community.

"Now, this plan is destroyed because of the decision that was made today," said Serrano.

Goode did not respond directly to Serrano's concerns but through his press secretary, Karen Warrington, he said he opposed the development plans because they "did not meet the criteria of perserving the historical integrity of the site."