Zoning board approves variance for private women’s prison in Germantown

The Zoning Board of Adjustment’s meeting room on the 18th floor of 1515 Arch St. was packed Wednesday afternoon with people seeking the three-person panel’s approval or denial of a number of projects across Philadelphia.

When they called Case No. 17053, aka Germantown’s New Directions for Women Inc., to the front, eight people stood in support and three opposed the others’ efforts seeking permanent variances to operate the penal institution that has been on Germantown Avenue since the late 1980s.

Both sides were afforded the chance to speak during a 20-minute discussion that ended with the ZBA’s unanimous decision to award New Directions take temporary variances and make them permanent, which is precisely for what Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass’s office had written a letter of recommendation.

“As a past [New Directions] board member, she was in support of it,” Bass’ spokesman Joe Corrigan said during a phone interview after the vote, “and the vast majority of the community is in support of it as well.”

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A $250,000 grant at stake

New Directions is not a new member of the community. It has been on land formerly held by Germantown Settlement at 4807-11 Germantown Ave. since 1989. The executive director of the past six years, Carolyn Stewart, had made plans to move the program to Wakefield Street, but those fell through.

In staying put, Stewart needed to provide up-to-date zoning information to use a $250,000 grant from Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh in January. That’s when she realized the use variances on the site were temporary, and not renewed.

To secure the money, however, she would need permanent variances by Feb. 16 or the money would disappear. It just so happened that the ZBA’s next scheduled meeting was Feb. 15. In other words, a lot was on the line Wednesday afternoon.

“Normally, nothing surprises me, but when I realized what had to be done, it was like the blood just rushed from my head,” Stewart recalled. “Then, I had to get into the zone. … I never thought there would be a problem [from neighbors] if we were just staying where we were.”

The backlash

Like at Monday’s community meeting about New Directions, those in opposition at the ZBA hearing — 12th Ward Democratic leader John Connelly, community organizer Allison Weiss and longtime New Directions-foe Theodore Stokes — did not take issue with the program itself. They cited concerns with the rushed-nature of the hearing and other zoning intricacies.

Stokes, who was on crutches, maintained that neighbors had not been given enough information to make an informed decision about New Directions. Connelly took it further.

“I don’t have a problem with the women,” Connelly said. “You community people always pack the meetings. I counted seven people there who actually live in the community.”

He went on to say that he was concerned that the variances would enable developer Ken Weinstein to do what he pleases with the rest of the property itself without community input. ZBA members assured him, however, that they were only dealing with the New Directions building.

The decision comes as a relief

After the meeting, at which two members of the Wister Neighborhood Council spoke and letters of support from Bass and Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief-of-staff Everett Gillison were noted, Stewart said she was looking forward to scanning the variance and emailing a PDF to Pittsburgh.

She said she hoped that the prank heavy-breathing calls the facility had been receiving since this story broke would stop. She also recounted backlash that the women in the program received when she brought them to a public meeting about the potential move.

“I can understand why people are concerned about other buildings [on the campus]. I am, too,” Stewart said. At those previous meetings, “They were called all sorts of names. Some left in tears. But, this is the safest place the women can be right now. If it wasn’t for this kind of program, I hate to say it, but these women could end up going right back to incarceration. They’ve been sitting on pins and needles.”

Stewart can now get back to preparing for $250,000 in renovations. The most pressing issue: Working with the prison and parole systems to find homes for the fewer than 30 women who will need to move offsite for an estimated three months as the work is done.

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