Private women’s prison future focus of community meeting in Germantown tonight

If you live in Germantown, chances are you heard this week about an upcoming zoning hearing regarding a private women’s prison in the neighborhood.

You may not know that the facility, New Directions for Women Inc., has been located on the campus of the former Germantown Settlement Charter School for more than 20 years.

Recent plans to move the facility to a new site on Wakefield Street fell through, and New Directions now plans to stay put and update their current facility at 4811 Germantown Ave.

“We’re going to stay here and renovate,” said Carolyn Stewart, executive director of New Directions.

The 25-bed facility is an alternative to traditional incarceration, but is a correctional program, and women who are chosen to live there are supervised and monitored.

Community meeting on Monday

On Monday, Stewart and local developer Ken Weinstein — who is close to completing the purchase of the 8.5-acre campus after buying a $500,000 note on an original $3.5 million mortgage loan held by Prudential Capital Markets — will appear at a community meeting to discuss New Directions’ plans.

The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Monday at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 4821 Greene St., and NewsWorks will be there to cover it.

Originally, New Directions had planned to move to a new location on Wakefield Street and expand their operation to about 36 beds. Instead, Stewart said, they hope to stay in their current location and possibly expand by only about five beds, by moving some administrative offices into another building on the campus.

New Directions has a 20-year lease on the property, and in the long term, Stewart said she could be interested in pursuing the creation of a “re-entry” center to help those coming out of prison to help access community services. But she intends no expansion of the residential capacity.

“What I know, and what I want the people in this community to be aware of, is that there will never be more than 30 women in residence here,” Stewart said.

Upgrades to the current building will allow New Directions to offer some counseling, clinical and therapeutic services to residents on-site, rather than at various locations citywide, she said.

Work will include updating kitchens, installing central air conditioning and a sprinkler system, installing carpeting and upgrading the security monitoring system.

The property is zoned residential, and the meeting notice circulating in the neighborhood this week is for a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, at which New Directions will seek a variance to operate the private correctional facility.

Settlement variances not renewed

In an odd twist, Stewart said she learned only recently that the previous owners, the now defunct Greater Germantown Educational Development Inc., an arm of the Germantown Settlement, had not renewed a series of temporary variances for the program’s use of the building.

“So really, since 1997 or 2000 or so, we have not had a zoning variance,” Stewart said.

Weinstein said he and partner Howard Treatman, who ran for the Eighth District City Council seat last year, supported New Directions’ desire to stay in their current location and have agreed to freeze their rent and assist in the site renovations.

“When we bought the note, we knew that New Directions wanted to stay, and we were very familiar with and support of what they do there,” Weinstein said.

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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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