East Falls feels ‘railroaded’ by push for special victims unit

East Falls residents say they’ve been blindsided by a plan to move the Philadelphia police’s Special Victims Unit and victim service agencies to a new building in the neighborhood, across from a busy city recreation center.

The plan would turn an empty parking lot site at 3449 Scotts Lane into a 37,000 square-foot, two-wing building. On one side, detectives investigating sexual assaults of children and adults citywide would conduct interviews, examinations and arrests. The other side would house offices of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance and the sex-abuse intake unit of the Department of Human Services.

Backers of the plan say bringing the various components of sexual assault investigation and related services together in one place would create a smoother process for victims, who can often feel as if they are victimized again by the investigation into their allegation.

Community meeting termed tardy

City officials have been working on the plan for at least three months. Detailed final site plans have been made. Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.’s bill authorizing the deal is scheduled for a second reading at Thursday’s City Council session.

Yet no community meetings were held and no official information given to area residents before Tuesday night’s special session of the East Falls Community Council. Neighbors are furious, at both a project they say is wrong for the location and a process they say excluded them.

“This is the first attempt to even bring the community in,” said Bill Hoffner, a former EFCC president. “It’s absurd, it really does feel like we’re being railroaded.”

Transcripts of a June 1 council committee meeting show Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison eager to get the deal done by June 16, telling Councilman Jim Kenney he would come into the community for a meeting before that.

Neighbors got notice of the meeting on Monday.

Councilman may slow process

Jones’ chief of staff, Al Spivey, said the councilman had introduced the bill on the Nutter administration’s behalf, and moved to distance the 4th District’s representative from the proposal. He said Jones may hold the bill given the intensity of the community response.

“I personally have some questions about the sequence of events, things that could have been done differently, that we have to own,” Spivey told NewsWorks.

Gillison said he would take the blame for lack of community information, but that the plan needs to move forward quickly or the city will be forced to renew leases on current facilities.

“If you want to know who to blame, you can blame me,” he said. “This advances the ball for all of those in criminal justice.”

Residents offered blame, and also anger and shouts at the prospect of putting the facility steps away from the McDevitt Recreation Center. This, they objected, in a neighborhood already home to the Youth Study Center, a Gaudenzia drug and alcohol rehab facility, and an alternative school, Delaware Valley High.

Plans show a one-story building with 150 parking spaces on a triangular 3.5-acre parcel between the Roosevelt Expressway and railroad tracks, with an entrance to the facility off Scotts Lane. Neighbors said drivers already speed up and down the narrow street, endangering pedestrians and the hundreds of local children who use the rec center. No traffic study has been done on the project.

Property owner and project developer Andrew Eisenstein said the plan’s total capital cost would be about $7 million. The city would pay up to $860,000 annually on a 15-year lease on the property.

Use of vacant buildings urged

Some in the crowd questioned why the city would pay to lease a brand-new building when it has vacant properties. Others asked why the new cetner couldn’t instead be placed at the former Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute when the Youth Study Center moves to its new spot at 48th Street and Haverford Avenue in early 2013.

Police and victims services representatives said the center would fulfill a long-standing desire to create one central location where children and adults involved in sexual assault and abuse cases could be served. 

Lt. Steven Biello said the 70-person SVU would move from its current location on the Temple University Hospital Episcopal campus to the Scotts Lane site. The police part of the building would feature an intake area, detective offices, a media briefing room, polygraph room and four holding cells where suspects would be held before being taken to the 35th District police station.

On the victim-services side of the building, the PCA would move from its current offices at 15th and Chestnut, director Chris Kirchner said. Another suite of offices would bring 27 DHS workers investigating allegations of child sexual abuse and administering continuing services to victims and their families, DHS commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose told the crowd.

“This would only be doing the better good for the children of the city,” Biello said.

A few in the crowd said they saw the value of a multi-services facility but felt this particular location is a bad choice at every level.

“The concept of this is a wonderful thing,” said Denise Vernier. “But the location of this is going to cause traffic problems in this area.”

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