The stingy renovation of the Inquirer building is a crime against the police and the public

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It’s been exactly ten years since the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News sold their soaring white tower on North Broad Street and moved into the women’s section of the long-defunct Strawbridge & Clothier department store. Now, the Philadelphia Police Department is abandoning the Roundhouse, a product of the city’s ’50s reform era, to install itself on the lower floors of the Inquirer’s classic newspaper building.

This is the life cycle of a modern city: institutions evolve. Space requirements change. Survival is better than sentimentality. In 2012, the Inquirer worked to reinvent itself for the digital age, and the new quarters freed the media company from the baggage of print history. Given the reckoning faced by U.S. police departments since the murder of George Floyd, leaving the cramped roundhouse on Race Street — with its history of abuse and the lingering specter of Frank Rizzo — could just as well give embattled Philadelphia troops Opportunity to forge a new approach to policing.

But from what I saw in my 90-minute tour of the Inquirer’s old home (which is also my work home), it’s hard to imagine that the refurbished building would provide an enabling environment for much-needed change. The $280 million construction project, managed by the Kenny government and developer Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments, created a depressing municipal bunker that was cut off from the surrounding city and the people the police were supposed to protect.

» Read more: A final farewell to the ‘Tower of Truth’

The historic Inquirer Tower, designed by Rankin, Kellogg & Crane in 1925, is 18 stories high, while the police station will occupy only the lower seven floors. The upper floors will be mothballed, and most of the building’s 1,200 occupants will be housed in a five-story horizontal podium along Callowhill Street, a cavernous space originally constructed to house the Inquirer’s powerful printing press. After the printing business moved to the suburbs in the early ’90s, the area was transformed into one of America’s most inspiring newsrooms, a 40-foot-tall double-height Cathedral of Light. Yet, somehow, the city and its design consultants, USA Architects, managed to transform the sun-drenched interior into a windowless, low-ceilinged office.

As the city’s media tours follow long, dreary corridors with so little outside visibility that journalists begin to forget where they are. Whether they were on the Broad, Carroll Hill, or 15th Street side of the building, several people wanted to know. The hallway floors are finished in a black and white vinyl tile checkerboard, similar to what you’d see in school cafeterias in the ’60s. Disorientation is further exacerbated by the busy mode. The walls are painted an azure blue, as if to suggest a sky no one will ever see.

The claustrophobia only intensified once we got to the homicide department. A 100-person unit that is working to reduce deadly gun violence in Philadelphia has been crammed into a single room. While detectives no longer need to share desks like they do at Roundhouse, their new office doesn’t have a single window. Several electric typewriters line a row of filing cabinets. They were brought from Race Street despite being labelled “broken”. Their presence brings an inherent aura of aging to the place.

The situation in the medical examiner’s office and the morgue is not much better. The city did manage to provide a shower so pathologists could wash off dangerous bacteria after performing autopsies. But this design is closer to what you see in a prison. Meanwhile, the video conference room has been given the best seat in the house, with a block of windows overlooking Broad Street. The problem is that plenty of natural light requires the curtains to be pulled tight during the call.

Yes, the restoration of the building exterior and historic lobby is stunning. At some point in the past, the Inquirer was given a coat of snow-white paint that eventually camouflaged the rich texture of its terracotta and brick façade. Now that the paint has been removed, we can see that the tower is more of a rich ivory color, while the base of the building, which was once industrial gray, has a warm buff tones.

Every cornerstone, shield, medallion and urn stands out. The bells of Westminster Clock Tower, designed to echo earlier American versions of Independence Hall and the top of the Merchant Exchange, were charged on time again.

Given that Bratterstein received a historic $40 million tax credit from the federal government to subsidize the work, this pristine restoration is the last thing the public deserves.

So how did American architects make such a mess of an interior? The firm is the same firm that designed the forbidding black-and-white striped tower on Camden’s waterfront for South Jersey political boss and insurance executive George Norcross. But I suspect that even the best architects may have trouble dividing the lower floors into pleasant offices. The nearly 400,000-square-foot long horizontal podium is very deep, with most of the windows flanking Callowhill and Broad Street. Once the private office was built along the window wall, the rest of the interior was left in darkness. Because reporters are not allowed to visit the space designated for the 911 call center, it is impossible to assess the working conditions there.

Today, most modern office buildings are designed to bring in as much natural light as possible. Managers have learned that employees do better when they can look outside while they work. The upper floors of the Inquirer’s slender tower will feature plenty of windows for the offices. But the city opted to concentrate police functions in the lower, more horizontal parts of the building.

Although the police department has been looking for a new home for more than a decade, the move to the Inquirer building was a last-minute decision. In 2016, after extensive consultation with former Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, Mayor Nutt selected the vacant office building at 46th Street and Market as the new police headquarters. This is a huge property with ample parking and easy access to Market-Frankford El. But soon after taking office, Mayor Kenny scrapped the plan and signed the Inquirer building’s lease with Blatstein.

» Read more: Find out how The Inquirer has printed newspapers over the years

The explanation for this change is that police make more sense in central cities close to courts and government offices. But I’m starting to see this sudden shift as “Rizo’s Revenge.” The Enquirer and the Daily News have a long history of investigating police misconduct and often tangled with Rizzo when he was police chief. After construction workers blocked the building in 1976, in protest of a satirical column about their union activities, the Inquirer claimed Rizzo had turned a blind eye to the situation. There were no police officers to help the inquirer. Instead, the paper was forced to ask federal law enforcement officers to clear a path so employees could return to work in the building.

Seeing what’s going on inside the Enquirer building now, it doesn’t seem like revenge is so sweet. The police would be far better off at 46th Street and Market Street in the former Provident Fund Mutual Life Insurance Building.

The same goes for taxpayers in Philadelphia.

The Nut government borrowed $52 million to renovate the Provident Fund, and when Kenny changed course, the exterior work was nearly complete. While he promised the city would recover the cost by selling the provident fund to the developer, the city could only get $10 million for the building. That folly alone will ultimately cost taxpayers $90 million, as the city still has to pay off the remaining loan and interest, according to real estate finance expert and Assemblyman Allan Domb.

Domb believes that the price of mobile Inquirers will also increase. Over the next nine years, the city will pay Blatstein $140 million in rent. After that, the contract required the city government to purchase the building. Domb estimates the purchase price could be closer to $400 million. Add those figures together and the total cost of the new Philadelphia Public Service Building could be as high as $630 million, far more than the city spends on construction projects. Of course, by the time the bill expires, another mayor will be in office.

After the last police department employee moved to a new public services building in July, the city hopes to recoup some of the money by selling the Roundhouse, as well as the large grounds next door.

Designed in 1959 by architect Robert Geddes and engineer August Komendant of GBQC, the Police Headquarters is probably Philadelphia’s most misunderstood building, in part due to the ill-fated fence that was later erected to spoil the landscape. Architecturally, its curved form is deeply sculptural. Think of it as Philadelphia’s answer to Eero Saarinen’s TWA building at JFK Airport in New York, which is now a boutique hotel. The Roundhouse is also the product of one of the most progressive periods in Philadelphia’s history, when Mayors Joseph S. Clark and Richardson Dilworth were working to bring a declining industrial city into the modern era.

To achieve this, they knew that Philadelphia needed to upgrade its civic infrastructure. They invested heavily in new libraries, health clinics, fire stations and police stations, and went to great lengths to hire the best architects of the day. After the Roundhouse was completed in 1963, the design was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Preservationists are now organizing the roundhouse to be listed on the city’s historic register to prevent it from being demolished after it’s sold. Nominations were submitted in February. The planning committee also agreed to hold a community meeting before placing the building on the market. But given how the Kenney government has handled the city’s historic heritage in the past, the future of this important mid-century icon is by no means certain.

It’s hard to believe that the same city that achieved such an ambitious civic manifesto as the Roundhouse would also produce such a mean and shady interior in a public service building. City officials told reporters last week that there were no plans to install signs on the doors. Maybe they were too embarrassed? This project isn’t just a missed opportunity; it’s a generational failure.

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