More than two decades after it was promised, Philadelphians finally will get public-access television, with five community channels coming early next year.

Mayor Street yesterday announced an agreement among the city, Comcast and the spunky Philadelphia Community Access Coalition to create a nonprofit corporation to run the new public-access channels.

Comcast will provide $1.8 million to help turn the vacant art deco Widener branch of the Free Library at 28th Street and Lehigh Avenue into a modern studio and meeting place.

Comcast will make a second grant of $900,000 by 2010 and pay an annual $500,000 subsidy to support analog Channel 66 and four digital channels.

The city will pay the new corporation's utility bills for five years as part of the deal. The Street administration will send legislation to City Council in the next two weeks to codify the agreement.

The idea of public access dates to the original cable-television- franchise agreements signed by the city 24 years ago. Public access was to be paid for out of the fees the cable providers paid the city, but over the years, the city directed the money to other needs.

"Everybody is for public access and thinks public access is important," Street said, "but getting it done, getting an agreement and location and all the ducks in order ended up taking us a long, long time. In fact, about four administrations worked on it."

In the mid-'90s, public-access activists began a serious lobbying effort that culminated in an unsuccessful federal lawsuit in 2002. Thereafter, the Street administration started working with the group on a plan.

Gretjen Clausing, a coalition leader, said the channels will focus on youth programming, multi-faith religious programs, arts and culture, and programming for communities, nonprofits and public affairs. Comcast will provide four hours of video-on-demand.

Anthony T. Riddle, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, said about 3,000 community channels across the country, run by 1.2 million volunteers, produce 20,000 hours of programming every week.

Clausing said her group sees it as an "electronic green space, a place away from the bustle of commercialization where people meet and exchange ideas."

Street sees public-access television playing a role in the political life of the city.

"I happen to think that it is a great opportunity during an election cycle to get information out without people having to go out and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.

The proposed Philadelphia Public Access Corp. will initially be run by an interim board of mayoral and Council appointees. A new board will be elected in 2008. *