Philly can't afford to waste $50 million on a white elephant

The Provident Mutual Life Insurance building sits behind a chain-link fence as it is being renovated by the city at the corner of 46th and Market. 02/27/2017 MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

What could $50 million in taxpayer money buy?

In Philadelphia, it could cover homeless services in the city budget, or the bulk of the funding for the Parks and Recreation Department, or underwrite the budgets for libraries, procurement, and records.

Instead, the city spent $50 million to partially renovate a 90-year old white elephant of a building at 46th and Market Streets. Former Mayor Michael Nutter wanted to turn the building into a new headquarters for police, but his successor, Mayor Kenney, does not. Either way, taxpayers are footing the bill.

It doesn’t make sense, but that has been the story of the building ever since Provident Mutual Life left it in 1983. So, it sits — a 325,000-square-foot hulk on 15 acres just off the Market-Frankford line — like a monument to quiescence.

The building failed as a satellite campus for Lincoln and Cheyney universities, as a location for Family Court, and as a home for non-profits. There was even talk of turning it into a new West Philadelphia High School. Fortunately for it, the School District didn’t take on that expensive rehab project.

Kenney is only the latest to walk away from the building. He says police would be better served by having a headquarters closer to Center City, which does make sense. He has chosen the former Inquirer and Daily News Building at 400 N. Broad St.

The administration says the 18-story building with a distinctive clock tower could not only accommodate the police headquarters staff but also fire communications personnel and the Sixth and Ninth police districts.

The new project will cost about $288 million, which is what the city says it would have to spend to make the West Philadelphia site work. But that’s not counting the $50 million already spent on the Market Street site.

Without question, the police need a more habitable and efficient work environment than the old Roundhouse at Eighth and Race Streets. It’s also senseless to scatter bits and pieces of central police operations around town. But space and location considerations should have been resolved before the city sunk $50 million into the Market Street site.

That was a costly decision, but perhaps it’s best that the city pull out of the project before spending more taxpayer funds on a building that won’t suit its purposes.

The about-face by Kenney stings like 50 million scorpions. But the pain won’t last as long if Kenney’s office is right in saying the work done on the building at 4601 Market has made it more attractive to potential buyers. Maybe taxpayers can at least recoup the cost to polish the building’s gold dome and clean its limestone facade.

One sure winner in the building swap is developer Bart Blatstein, who bought the former newspaper building for $22.6 million in 2012. The turnkey project calls for the city to pay Blatstein’s company $42 million to acquire the building plus the cost to design and renovate the headquarters before handing it over to the city.

Taxpayers are left to trust city officials not to make the same mistake twice. Philadelphia has too many critical needs to waste precious revenue trying to turn a building into police headquarters if it isn’t right for the job.