Germantown residents: Private women’s prison should tell us more about future plans

The relative anonymity in which New Directions for Women Inc. has operated in Germantown since the late 1980s may prove to be a double-edged sword for the private, not-for-profit alternative prison.

Now, as the group seeks Zoning Board of Adjustment approval to renovate the run-down former convent they call home, some neighbors have questioned whether New Directions did enough to let the community know its plans.

At a public meeting Monday night, there were concerns about whether enough neighbors had been canvassed with fliers, whether the group should engage more publicly with Germantown, and what new property owner Ken Weinstein intends to do with the rest of the former Germantown Settlement Charter School campus at 4807-4811 Germantown Ave.

Still, those issues seem unlikely to derail New Directions, which counts an enthusiastic supporter in new Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, a former member of the group’s board of directors.

“You don’t have to have anything in your neighborhood that you don’t want,” Bass told those gathered at St. Francis of Assisi Church, “but I’m proud to advocate on their behalf. If I ever had to make a case for any organization, in any neighborhood, it would be this one.”

Zoning hearing on Wednesday

New Directions will appear at a zoning hearing scheduled for tomorrow. It is seeking permanent use variances to operate a penal institution — in this case, a residential facility serving up to an estimated 30 women — on property classified as residential. Only recently, New Directions’ plans to move from Germantown Avenue to a site on Wakefield Street fell through.

When the group decided to stay in their current location and renovate instead, they discovered the previous property owners had stopped renewing a series of temporary use variances, said Carolyn Stewart, New Directions’ executive director.

None of the several dozen neighbors who came to Monday night’s meeting expressed opposition to what New Directions does, or even to its presence in the neighborhood, but several questioned whether the group’s efforts to publicize its plans were adequate. There was also some confusion about what, exactly, New Directions wanted to do, but the sometimes-impenetrable language of zoning notices may bear some blame for that.

Calls for a delay could prove costly

Some in the audience, including 12th Ward Democratic leader John Connelly, called for a delay of at least a month so the community could “get in there and see what you do.” Others said the process felt rushed, and only one person in the audience said they had actually received the group’s flier advertising the public meeting.

Stewart said delaying the hearing that would jeopardize a $250,000 grant from Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, which New Directions was awarded three years ago but so far hasn’t been able to use. After issuing several extensions already, Stewart said, the bank has given the group a deadline of Thursday to produce city approvals or lose the money.

Yvonne Haskins, a local attorney and community leader, founded New Directions and appeared at the meeting to explain the group’s background. The goal, she said, has always been to provide eligible women with alternatives to traditional incarceration and the tools to rebuild their families once they leave the system.

What is New Directions?

Women chosen for New Directions, a first-of-its-kind program in the city, stay for between nine months and a year. New Directions’ clients have a 14 percent recidivism rate, compared with a 56 percent national rate, Stewart said. For several years, it operated only steps away from the charter school without incident.

The residents — earlier this week, there were 15 on-site — work on the campus, performing maintenance and groundskeeping duties. With renovations, the clients would be able to receive more counseling and other services on site, including places to spend time with their children during court-ordered visitation.

“These women deserve a second chance. They deserve a third chance, and a fourth chance, because many of these women — most of them — are mothers,” Haskins said.

New Directions is seeking approval only to operate the penal facility out of one building on the five-building campus, which would automatically limit the number of residents it could accept.

Weinstein, a local developer who has been acquiring properties in Germantown steadily over the last few years, said he is actively looking at tenants for the rest of the campus. He added that he would meet with the community to talk about what uses they’d like to see.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday, at 1515 Arch St., 18th floor.

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NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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