Detention hall site to be art collection’s new home in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Inquirer

December 15, 2004

By Patricia Horn

One day after receiving court permission to relocate its renowned art gallery from Merion to Center City, the Barnes Foundation learned yesterday exactly where it would be moving: to the site of the Youth Study Center, a juvenile detention hall on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 20th and 21st Streets.

Mayor Street told a packed room at City Hall that the city would move the center’s current residents and staff to another site in North Philadelphia and demolish the center so the Barnes could start construction by the end of 2005.

On Monday, Montgomery County Orphans’ Court Judge Stanley Ott gave the financially struggling Barnes permission to deviate from the instructions left by its founder, Albert C. Barnes, so it could move the multibillion-dollar art collection from its suburban location to a more-accessible site along the Parkway. The ruling culminated more than two years of litigation.

City Commerce Director Stephanie Naidoff said the mayor made his final decision on the new site Monday night and announced it yesterday so Barnes board president Bernard Watson could attend. Watson was flying out of town later yesterday, she said.

“In my judgment this is a huge, important advance for us in our city,” Street said. “We have over the years continued to grow into a world-class place, and this is just an enormous step in that direction.”

The choice of the Youth Study Center allayed fears that the Barnes might build on another site it had considered: the Von Colln Memorial Field, which includes two ballfields and a playground.

That site had several factors working in its favor, including closer proximity to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, more room nearby for parking, and no existing building to tear down.

It also does not have a 100-year-old brick sewer pipe running under it, as the Youth Study Center does — a potential construction complication.

In addition, because a replacement for the Youth Study Center, planned for West Philadelphia, won’t be ready until October 2007, the center’s current residents will need to be housed at the Cambria Community Center in North Philadelphia — which is already occupied by 159 prisoners. The city has not found a new home for those inmates yet.

Neighborhood opposition to building on the ballfields, however, would have made it a difficult choice politically.

Instead, the new Barnes will be right next to the Central Library, which itself is raising money for a $ 130 million overhaul of its headquarters. The library hopes to break ground on the improvements and a 160,000-square-foot addition in the spring of 2006.

The new Barnes also will be next door to the Rodin Museum and across the street from the Franklin Institute. It will be nearly directly across the Parkway from the proposed Alexander Calder Museum.

“Well, you know I am happy,” said Happy Fernandez, president of the Moore College of Art and Design, another Parkway tenant. “Frankly, it is wonderful for Moore. We are an educational institution. I was talking to one of my alums, class of ’38, and she used to take public transportation out to the Barnes to take a course. So it is great for our students.”

It was unclear whether the city would donate the Youth Study Center site to the Barnes, sell it at below-market rates, or lease it.

“We don’t have all the details,” Naidoff said. “We have just begun the process, and we intend to give them the land. We are not sure exactly what that means.”

In other cases along the Parkway, the city typically keeps title to the land and leases it to the organization that uses it, said Robert Nix III, chairman of the Fairmount Park Commission, which manages Parkway land. He said the commission’s first preference for the Barnes also would be for a long-term lease arrangement.

Another detail that remains to be worked out, Naidoff said, is who will pay the demolition costs. Those were estimated at $ 2.2 million by Perks Reutter Associates, which did an analysis of the two possible sites for the Barnes.

A major construction complication could be that old sewer pipe, buried 25 feet deep, which Harry Perks of Perks Reutter recommended staying in place.

“This pipe is buried in a trench that is carved out of rock like a tunnel,” he said. “It would be very easy to design a footprint for the building that would go around it.” The city Water Department said no one had talked with it about moving the pipe.

Perks said the study he did for the Barnes did not include any plans for underground parking — or any parking whatsoever.

The building, he said, would not have a deep basement because there is only 15 feet of dirt over 10 feet of rock.

Perks estimated that the new Barnes could be built for $ 60 million, with an additional $ 40 million needed for such things as demolition, furniture, architectural fees, and other costs. The estimate did not include any costs for excavation of rock; Mark Celoni, vice president and civil engineer for Pennoni Associates Inc., said excavating rock could cost 10 times more than excavating soil.

But Maxine Griffith, executive director of the City Planning Commission, said her office’s study of the site and the sewer line running underneath suggested that the new Barnes could straddle the pipe.

“We did the due diligence. It is doable. It was not something that would be an impediment to development,” she said.

Naidoff said issues such as the sewer pipe would “have to wait for an architect to be in place and to evaluate all the options.”

Perks said the new building would be set back on the site because the city wants the tree-lined view of the Parkway from City Hall to the Art Museum to remain unobstructed.

“I estimated that there could be a facility of 120,000 to 150,000 square feet, built at $ 400 to $ 500 per square foot,” Perks said. “The museum that is going to be replicated is only 28,000 square feet. If you are talking 120,0000, I think it is reasonable to have a comfort level that you can replicate the museum and the education and the administration facility. It is almost four times.”

Rebecca Rimel, president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which along with two other foundations has promised to help raise $ 150 million for the project and to establish an endowment, said fund-raising would resume in earnest after the first of the year.

No new donors called her yesterday, she said.

“We are back in business. My phone is working. So is Dr. Watson’s,” Rimel said.

She said Gov. Rendell, who supported the Barnes proposal to move, had not yet made a pledge of state support, but she would be “happy to take his call.”

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