Gorgeous New City Hall Gates to Come With a Politically Interesting Twist

They were designed by Vitetta—the architecture firm that pays Jim Kenney $75,000 a year.

The new City Hall gates. | Renderings and designs from Vitetta.

The new City Hall gates. | Renderings and designs from Vitetta.

Given City Hall’s grandeur, one of the more annoying features of the building has been the sad-sack gates at the four portals to the interior courtyard. They’re made of chain link, like you’d see on the perimeter of a prison, only without the razor wire.

Well, those gates are in for a pretty breathtaking upgrade in the not-too-distant future. Working off a conceptual design proposed by John McArthur Jr., the original architect of City Hall, the architecture firm Vitetta has come up with a painstakingly detailed, historically reverent set of schematics for the new gates, which could be completed by the end of the year, according to Bridget Collins Greenwald, the city’s Public Property Commissioner.

This is interesting news for an obvious reason: the gorgeous new gates are one more step of what’s become a very, very long project to burnish the tarnished jewel that is City Hall. But it’s interesting for another reason as well: Vitetta happens to have mayoral candidate and former City Councilman Jim Kenney on retainer as a consultant, at the rate of $75,000 a year.

It can be politically dicey for an elected official to have a job on the side, particularly if the job is with a company that’s done work with the city. Which is why, when then-City Councilman Jim Kenney started worked with Vitetta in 2002, the company voluntarily decided to stop taking on new city projects. As Kenney put it in a live interview with Citified two weeks ago: “My firm made a conscious decision not to pursue any city work.”

But there was a caveat. Before Kenney came on board, Vitetta was already the contractor on the massive masonry restoration of City Hall. It had some other city-related contracts already in progress too. The company wasn’t going to abandon those jobs just because Kenney was now being paid a consulting fee, which seems reasonable. “But no new business,” Kenney said, “and we’ve never pursued it. They’ve never gone after an RFP for anything.”

What about the City Hall gates though? Doesn’t that count as new work?

The answer is a little complicated. On the one hand, the gates clearly haven’t been constructed yet, and Vitetta is getting paid about $100,000 in city funds for the firm’s design work on the gate. The contract isn’t technically with the city—it’s with the Center City District, which is managing the project on the city’s behalf. Still, we’re literally talking about the gates of City Hall—that counts as city work by most peoples’ reckoning.

On the other hand, Vitetta actually drew up detailed schematics for the gate long ago, before Kenney was retained as a consultant. Indeed, the city’s Historical Commission gave Vitetta’s design a green light in 2001. But a philanthropic gift that was supposed to pay for the new gates didn’t materialize, and so Vitetta’s plans sat on a shelf in City Hall, gathering dust. Now, though, with the new Dilworth Park, there’s renewed interest in addressing City Hall’s remaining rough edges. The city’s capital budget has cash in it for a number of renovations, including the replacement of those ghastly “temporary” (for 25 years or so) cyclone fence gates. The new City Hall gates will probably cost around $1.5 million, and the actual fabrication and installation work will be bid out.

But Vitetta seemed an obvious choice to both the city and the Center City District for the design piece of the job, given the firm’s earlier work. The old plans were dusted off, and with some minor modifications and additions, they were complete. Vitetta CEO Gary Pittman described the additional work as “negligible.”

So is it new work for the city, or is it old work?

“This isn’t a new city contract. It’s not an exception to the rule or an indication they’re breaking the rule in any way,” said Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt. “The gates were approved 14 years ago. I think it’s a stretch to say this is new. Actually I think it’s more than a stretch, I think it’s inaccurate.”

Citified will leave it to readers to make up their own minds on whether or not this counts as new work or old. But it does seem clear that Kenney played no role in securing this work for Vitetta. Center City Executive Director Paul Levy is adamant on that point, as are city officials and Vitetta’s Pittman.

So what good does Kenney do Vitetta, if the firm indeed does no work for the City of Philadelphia, except those pre-existing projects? When asked that question, Pittman replied: “Jim in his career certainly has a very broad—what would I call it—database of contacts and so on. He hears about other projects and so on. His role was to advise us of projects that he was aware of, whether it was a Turnpike project or something in Harrisburg, then we would get in with the mix with the other companies and put or proposals together.”

Added Pittman: “But he’s not doing a lot of work for us right now.”