Moving forward after East Falls SVU fallout

City officials say they learned at least one valuable lesson from a failed effort to relocate Philadelphia Police’s Special Victims Unit to East Falls.

As the search continues for a new site, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison said this week that he’ll need to be more prepared to address misguided information about the project.

“We could not ultimately control the viral nature of the fears,” he said. “When you get people that are dealing out of emotionalism rather than fact, it’s very difficult to talk to them.”

Gillison, the most visible city player behind the proposal, said not everyone fully understood the intent of the co-location project. That, he said, led to a lot of unwarranted “hysteria” and made a rational debate about the plan more difficult.

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But East Falls residents say they understood the facts of the proposal; they just didn’t want another social service facility forced upon them in the midst of plans for economic development in the neighborhood.  

That situation ultimately played a part in City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.’s decision to withdraw his support from the move to 3449 Scotts Lane, said Gillison. He added that he appreciated the tough decision that Jones faced. 

Jones, who’s Fourth District includes that site, tabled a measure – introduced on behalf of Mayor Nutter – in late June that would have allowed the city to lease a brand new building at that location.

“Although, the concept of a co-location of police and victims services is laudable, I have decided that I cannot support moving forward with this project in this location,” he said in a statement afterwards.

Debunking myths about the site 

The two-wing site is set to house both the city’s SVU and offices for the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance along with the sex-abuse intake unit of the Department of Human Services.

Gillison said that many neighbors, for example, thought the SVU would house sex offenders – that it would be a jail of sorts. While the plan does include four cells, he said, they will only be used as a place to temporarily hold offenders before they are moved to either a detention center or prison.

“It’s basically an administrative building,” said Gillison of a concept that’s been kicking around City Hall for at least a decade.

But during last month’s East Falls Community Council meeting, many neighbors shared their outrage over how little communication there was between city officials and residents. That mid-June meeting was in fact the first community meeting where the project was presented to the public. 

When asked about those concerns, Gillison said that the community was included in the process as soon as the city had a concrete plan.

‘Enough is enough’

Still others from the community were upset about the prospect of another social service building being foisted upon the area.

That section of East Falls is already home to a Gaudenzia, Inc. drug rehab center, a Youth Study Center and Delaware Valley High, an alternative school.

“We were stunned when Gaudenzia arrived; nobody had talked to us. We were stunned by the Youth Study Center; they insisted on putting it there. We have no place else to go. And that’s what they started to say with the SVU and enough is enough,” said Marjorie Greenfield with the EFCC.

Greenfield said while she supports the work each of those places performs; they hurt the community’s interest in promoting economic development along nearby Henry Avenue.

Promoting economic development

She pointed specifically to a set of recommendations for the area that were outlined in a Philadelphia City Planning Commission study from 2010.

PCPC’s Hunting Park West Industrial Area Study, in part the result of several community meetings, suggests a mix of retail and residential buildings along Henry Avenue, among other things.

“It wanted things it could use in terms of retail, in terms of housing, in terms of green space, in terms of improvements for public transportation, traffic flow and transportation,” said Greenfield.

“I never heard either from the planners, or the city, or the community, that they wanted a social service district,” she said.

Greenfield also said the SVU center would have violated the spirit of a formal agreement EFCC made with the proposed plot’s developer, Iron Stone Strategic Capital Partners, to similarly promote economic development in the area. That agreement does not include 3449 Scotts Lane.

Andrew Eisenstein, the company’s managing director, was not available for comment by the time NewsWorks published this article. 

Avoiding a similar fallout 

Moving forward, Greenfield said she hopes the city will be more up front with the community about its plans for the area so everyone can avoid the situation they encountered with the SVU center. She added that she thought Jones made the right decision, given the circumstances.

Deputy Mayor Gillison said he hopes to avoid a fallout like the city experienced in East Falls.

Asked where the project may ultimately land, Gillison only said that there are a few neighborhoods that are in play. He didn’t rule out East Falls as one of them and said Eisenstein was one of four developers that has approached him about the project.

“Ultimately, when we finally do build this building this year or early next year, people will end up saying, ‘I don’t understand what the big Hullabaloo was about’,” said Gillision.

“We need these kinds of facilities to be the kind of city we want to be,” he said.

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