A last-minute letter from Mayor Jim Kenney providing unknown assurances compelled Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell to flip-flop on legislation that sets the stage for the sale of the former Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. building in West Philadelphia.
City Council passed a bill on Thursday in a 14-2 vote that kicks starts the $10 million transfer of city-owned property at 4601 Market St. to a developer who has proposed to build a mental health and community services hub there.
After Blackwell delayed the legislation, Bill 181044, for yet another week during the morning caucus meeting over a “glitch,” Blackwell reversed course during the City Council session to allow the legislation to go to a vote.
Blackwell, whose district is where the 13-acre property is located, said she received a letter from Kenney, which provided assurances that he was committed to addressing lingering issues about the project. She refused to elaborate.
“It’s all right,” Blackwell responded when asked what those issues were. “The assurances are that we will move forward together to resolve the issues that could arise.”
In an interview outside his second-floor City Hall office, Kenney said his letter stated his administration will continue to work with Blackwell on issues that affect the site. However, the mayor said he was not aware of why Blackwell had previously stalled the legislation.
“But I don’t know what the delay was or why, and it mystifies me,” Kenney said, adding: “I think people were getting aggravated at the length of time it was taking for her to bring it to a vote and finally it happened.”
City Council members Allan Domb and Maria Quinones Sanchez had cast the two dissenting votes.
Blackwell’s blessing of the project was critical. When it comes to land transfers, City Council members traditionally defer to one of the 10 district members to introduce the required legislation in their own districts, although any member could do it. The unwritten practice is typically referred to as “councilmanic prerogative.”
Blackwell stalled the legislation in December before City Council’s month-long break due to protests from the community about the project. That delay drew disapproval from Kenney. In late January, Blackwell voiced her approval of the project but never committed to a timeline to introduce the bill for a vote.
The legislation doesn’t immediately sell the long-vacant property to developer Iron Stone Real Estate Partners, whose partners include Andrew Eisenstein, Jason Friedland, Matthew Canno, Sam Patterson, and Michael Pearson. Iron Stone aims to develop the site in partnership with Public Health Management Corporation.
Instead, the legislation transfers the site to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, whose board will determine whether to sell the property to Iron Stone. There is no timeline or obligation for PIDC to approve the final sale to the developers.
After Blackwell originally held the legislation, Pearson said while in the City Hall caucus room that he was unaware of the reasons Blackwell was delaying the legislation, but remained confident about the project.
Jeff Jubelirer, a spokesman for Iron Stone, said in an emailed statement that the developer was committed to advancing the project and transforming the vacant into an integrated public health campus.
Prospective tenants for the property include PHMC, YMCA, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, or CHOP, University of Pennsylvania Health System.
The proposal is expected to create 200 construction jobs and an estimated 1,000 permanent jobs, with 60 percent of the long-term jobs guaranteed to minorities and “local hiring,” defined as coming from within Philadelphia. Developers intend to add an estimated 10,000 square feet of retail space as well.
The city bought 4601 Market St. in 2014 for $4 million as the potential site for a new police department headquarters and dumped another $48 million into renovating the site. The property has an estimated value of $100 million.
Kenney scrapped that plan in 2017 in favor of moving police headquarters and other services to the former Inquirer-Daily News building at 400 N. Broad St.
During the City Council meeting, Domb said he was against the sale because he believed the $10 million price tag undervalued the property, but he approved of the project.
“It’s just the wrong value,” Domb said.
Kenney brushed aside Domb’s concerns about the sale price, saying, “I don’t really care. Councilman Domb seems to want to complain about just about everything.”