A group home for girls, which was once located on 6612 N. 12th Street, won’t be coming back to Oak Lane. Last week, the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC), a nonprofit that provides shelter and services to troubled youth throughout the city, withdrew a zoning application that would have allowed it to operate at that site.
The JJC closed down recently to repair its 12th Street location, which is technically zoned as single-family residential, and therefore requires a zoning use variance to function as a group home. In September, the JJC applied for the variance in order to reopen — this time, completely legally. The site would have housed, at most, six teenagers and two supervisors.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment was set to hear JJC’s arguments on Dec. 22, but because neighbors opposed the group home, the center bowed out. The JCC, which is funded by city’s Department of Human Services, has several group and foster homes across the city, including one on Germantown Avenue.
One Oak Lane resident, who apparently hadn’t heard the news, was at the ZBA hearing. He asked for anonymity, and then said, “We’re concerned because of the way it’s been run in the past. That house of girls got out of control.”
But members of the Oak Lane Community Action Association, the major force opposing the center, say their apprehension is more complex than that. They oppose the group home because, they claim, it would further dilute the neighborhood’s residential character.
“We’re over-institutionalized,” says Kelly McShain-Tyree, an Association board member. “In a 10-by-10-block area, there are more churches here than anywhere else in the country.”
(McShain-Tyree was unable to cite a source for this data, however, and the reporter could not find any proof of it.)
Regardless, in order to become less institutional, the Association is working to attract families from Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill and the suburbs with the promise of cheaper, yet comparable housing. At the same time, the group is pushing more businesses and agencies like JJC out of its residential areas, and into its commercial regions, like on Old York Road between Cheltenham Avenue and Oak Lane Road.
In fact, it baffles community members that some storefronts in that area remain vacant, while at the same time, JCC attempted to move into a residential area — and on top of that, business owners have recently tried to convert at least four of Oak Lane’s residential properties into daycare centers.
“We try to be so sensitive to the needs of these agencies,” says McShain-Tyree, “but we’re also working to stay sensitive to the needs of the community. Now if the agencies lived in the communities themselves, it might be a different story.”
But Henry Langsam, JJC’s attorney, isn’t so sure it would be. He believes the neighbors should happily accept an agency with a 34-year track record.
“[JJC] does a great job with children and youth, and in a responsible and alternative way,” he says. “This is the kind of institution that you want doing this work.”
Langsam says the neighbors aren’t concerned about residential homogeneity or quality-of-life issues, but money. In his estimation, they don’t want JJC to move in — or anyone except single families, for that matter — simply because it will lower their land values.
“It’s a NIMBY issue,” he says. “Every community has to do its share.”
Counters McShain-Tyree, “We want to direct agencies to our commercial spots, where they could do a greater good.”