Prison construction a hot topic at Holmesburg Civic

Holmesburg Civic Association members and activists from neighboring Mayfair and Tacony last week criticized a plan by the city to purchase land at 7777-R State Road for the possible construction of a prison.

City Councilman Bobby Henon (D-6th dist.), Prisons Commissioner Lou Giorla and Director of Public Safety Michael Resnick explained at the June 9 civic association meeting that the city needs to demolish the aging House of Correction.

Renovations would be too costly, the city officials said.

“We can’t bring it up to speed,” Giorla said.

The State Road property is adjacent to six prisons that house about 8,000 inmates. The House of Correction, rebuilt in 1927 to house 1,250 inmates (two to a cell), has more than 1,500 inmates.

Bunk beds have been placed in some cells to accommodate three people per cell. Temporary beds have also been set up.

Giorla explained that the House of Correction needs repairs to its roof and exterior, an automatic cell lock system, an improved video surveillance system and upgrades to its medical and dental clinic.

Henon echoed his view.

“The House of Correction is in deplorable condition,” he said.

Giorla, a Tacony resident who is retiring in eight months, said that the city looked at the shuttered Holmesburg Prison, but that a new prison on Torresdale Avenue would be a burden to the community. The prisons commissioner also inquired about moving residents of the nearby Riverview Home for the Aged, but the city declined.

Henon said the city needs to replace the House of Correction now, because waiting years to do so would skyrocket the price tag.

The vacant land that the city is eyeing sits on 58 acres. It’s the former home of Northern Metal Co.

Nobody is suggesting that a new prison on waterfront land is imminent.

Henon explained that an overall economic analysis would be undertaken.

Henon, with the backing of the Nutter administration, introduced Bill 150406, which would allow the city Department of Public Property to buy the land for $7.3 million.

“You elected me to make tough decisions,” he told folks at the meeting.

There would be an environmental study to see if there is contamination, and how much it would cost to remediate the problem. There, of course, would be significant construction costs.

Back in 2005, then-Councilwoman Joan Krajewski had the land at 7777 State Road zoned residential, a designation that could also allow recreational and commercial uses, she said at the time.

If the city goes ahead with a plan to build a prison there, it would have to change the zoning to I-3, or industrial, Henon said.

To fund construction, the city may have to place a bond referendum on the ballot for voters to decide.

A decade ago, former private owners of the land envisioned Independence Pointe. There would be 1,700 housing units, an 80- to 100-unit hotel, a health and wellness center, a 200-boat public marina, offices, recreational facilities, retail space and open space, they said.

Krajewski declared, “This is the beginning of the rebirth of the waterfront for the people of Northeast Philadelphia.”

That rebirth never took place.

“There hasn’t been any interest,” Henon said.

Many neighbors do not want a prison, for various reasons.

The city angered some residents by not telling them about the proposal, which was first revealed in a newspaper article.

The prison, residents noted, would be right next to the beautiful Pennypack on the Delaware, a park that opened in 1999.

Neighbors asked what would happen to the land where the House of Correction presently stands. They also questioned Giorla about prison releases, reporting that they often see people roaming State Road. As for inmate visitors, many of them walk across State Road against a red light after getting off a SEPTA bus, neighbors complained.

Some longtime residents don’t trust the city, recalling that they were promised that Holmesburg Prison would be demolished when it closed in 1996. It still stands and is used in various ways.

Others said Holmesburg is already home to six prisons, two methadone clinics and a former low-income housing project, Liddonfield Homes, that the Philadelphia Housing Authority is trying to redevelop.

Pete McDermott, the most vocal opponent of the prison idea, urged the city to look for another parcel of land.

“We just get prison after prison after prison after prison,” he said.

McDermott said it would be nuts for the city to build another prison on prime waterfront land. He believes the riverfront area near Rhawn Street has the potential to be as attractive as the Race Street Pier.

McDermott, who has examined the history of the site, believes the land is contaminated. He thinks it would cost at least $25 million to $30 million to remediate.

“This is a really questionable site,” he said.

Henon and Giorla held a telephone town hall on June 10. The next day, Henon held the bill to answer more questions from colleagues. The vote should come at Council’s June 18 session.

In other news from the meeting:

ull; The civic association voted 12–8, with one abstention, to not oppose, with conditions, the legalization of an electronic sign outside Shums Auto Repair, at Rhawn and Craig streets. Some neighbors complained that the sign was too big and bright.

ull; Mt. Zion Baptist Church, at 8101 Erdrick St. (at Welsh Road), will hold a community day on Saturday, June 27, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will be vendors, screenings, music, giveaways, games, food and shredding.

• Holmesburg Civic Association will meet on Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 7:15 p.m. at Holmesburg Recreation Center, at Rhawn and Ditman streets. ••