Youth Study Center plan raises questions about site’s next purpose

With a plan underway for the Youth Study Center to remain in East Falls another two years, neighbors are now looking for guarantees about what will come next at the Henry Avenue site.

City officials met Wednesday with about 50 people who gathered in the community room at the Abbottsford Homes to detail plans to seek an extension of a zoning variance on the former Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute at 3232 Henry Ave.

Timene Farlow, a deputy commissioner for juvenile justice in the Department of Human Services, said the center provides educational, religious, therapeutic and behavioral services for children ages 13 to 18.

The facility moved to East Falls in 2008 while work began on a new Youth Study Center at 48th and Haverford. Weather delays and a change in the general contractor mean the project won’t meet its original completion date this year.

The site is zoned R9A and is still owned by the state; the city leases the site and the YSC operates there under a use variance that expires in October. Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, said his office holds weekly status meetings on the progress at the West Philadelphia building, and construction on the top floor is nearly complete. If the roof is in place by December, the project could wrap earlier than the two-year time frame, he said.

East Falls Community Council officer Meg Greenfield focused her comments on three points: getting the property off the state’s surplus property list so it can’t be put to another institutional use, having the city change the site zoning, and getting a guarantee that the EPPI building would be demolished for future sale and development.

Greenfield said the city should rezone the property now for a future mixed-use development, and said the community would demand guarantees from the administration that the site would be cleared when the YSC moves to make it more secure and more attractive to buyers.

“I think that this community needs an iron-clad written commitment from this administration that they will seek re-zoning now,” she said. “We haven’t seen anything that protects this community when they’re out of there.”

Greg Brinkley, an Abbottsford resident and activist, said the experience with the YSC in East Falls has been positive overall, but when it’s over, the community should see some benefit, either through the future development or other community incentives.

“They’ve been known to accommodate residents when they want to put something in their community,” he said. “They know that there’s things that we need.”

Gillison said the mayor’s office supports the community’s future vision for the property but said the city could make no guarantee about paying demolition costs on a building it doesn’t own. The zoning questions, he said, are better put to Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Alan Greenberger.

The change of plans was also the topic of a discussion last week among city officials, East Falls civic groups and the East Falls Development Corp., but Wednesday’s meeting was the first public talk on the subject. Gillison said another meeting would follow once the zoning hearing is scheduled.

Rosalie Cooper, president of the Ridge-Allegheny-Hunting Park civic group, said nobody has a problem with the YSC staying in East Falls for another two years, and neighbors are not just looking for favors. But, she said, there are legitimate questions about the site’s next incarnation.

“It’s not about money, it’s about putting something there for the young people to do,” whether it’s places to live, or recreation facilities, or places to work.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.