On Jan. 4, the day of Mayor Kenney's inauguration and the first frigid, Code Blue day of the winter, more than 100 people lined up on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in search of a hot meal.

Adam Bruckner, whose nonprofit Philly Restart was running the makeshift dinner service, tucked his hands under his jacket to warm them. Weather like this brings out only the neediest, he said. "No one's faking being hungry out here today. These are truly desperate people."

It's hard to deny that. Yet, the meals served most days on the Parkway are at the center of a contentious tug-of-war between church groups that have long served the homeless and hungry there, and civic and business interests working to transform the Parkway into a clean, inviting tourist destination.

"If it was easy [to solve], the city would have done it. But there's no easy solution," Bruckner said.

Last spring - under the twin pressures of the impending papal visit and I-676 renovations that would turn the long-standing meal site at 18th and Vine Streets in front of the former Family Court Building into a construction zone - came the first outward sign of progress. The city issued a request for proposals for a radical solution: a semipermanent food-access site in northwestern Center City that could be assembled in a matter of weeks.

It would be a big tent, both physically and metaphorically, with room enough for Parkway meal providers, indoor and outdoor dining, and complementary social services.

Then, nothing happened. Locations were quietly proposed, and just as quietly thwarted.

Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said that under the new administration, that would change. She said in an email, "The philosophy guiding the location choice is that we need to put servicing these vulnerable citizens ahead of the more 'aesthetic' concerns that have held up finding a location."

So what will the solution look like? Where could the meal service go, and where should it? Would meal providers even agree to move to such a site?

These questions date to 2012, when Mayor Nutter first tried to deal with the issue - by banning outdoor meals. Church groups sued, a federal judge issued an injunction against the ban, and the case has lingered in court since.

In response, the mayor convened a task force and, later, the Philadelphia Food Access Collaborative, a group of city officials, food providers, and other stakeholders.

Since then, the city has raised more than $250,000 to help soup kitchens serve more than 2,000 additional meals a week at 20 new meal times at existing facilities, said Eva Gladstein, the city's deputy managing director for children and families. They've trained meal providers on mental health, and helped them connect clients with things such as dental and eye care.

But a viable central meal site - ideally, 5,000 to 10,000 square feet - has proved elusive.

Seven or eight sites have been considered, Gladstein said. Members of the collaborative said proposed sites ranged from a parking lot at Community College of Philadelphia at 15th and Hamilton Streets to a plaza near City Hall, such as the Municipal Services Building Plaza.

Paul Levy, chief executive of the Center City District, said a new site was urgently needed - particularly now that I-676 construction has displaced meal providers from the park in front of the courthouse onto narrow sidewalks or elsewhere on the Parkway.

"As the temporary feeding activity moves around, it becomes much more problematic. So the sooner that's resolved, the better."

Levy cited the Broad Street Ministry - known for serving sit-down meals - as a model of what he would like to see: meals served with dignity and wraparound services.

The city's request for proposals, issued April 8 and seeking a site operator to begin service by last June, described a tented structure where two meals per day could be served to 250 people. It would have warming stations rather than a full kitchen, and would serve as a bridge to a permanent site.

The document mentioned the Sprung brand; the Utah company, which has an office in Allentown, has produced fabric structures for everything from homeless shelters to prisons.

The First Church of Christ in Flemington, Pa., 100 miles north of Harrisburg, has been in a Sprung building for three years.

Pastor Mark Riley said the structure cost $800,000; the total build-out was $1.7 million. The 24,000-square-foot space, which includes a gym, auditorium, and commercial kitchen, took 10 weeks to build. Construction, heating, and cooling costs are each about one-third that of a comparably sized building, he said.

Gladys Peraro, executive director of U.S. Vets Waianae, has run a homeless shelter in a Sprung structure in Hawaii since 2007. The complex, including two tents joined by a covered lanai, houses 260 people - plus offices, laundry, and daily meals.

"We're going on nine years, and it's been a really workable solution," she said. "It's built in such a sturdy way I forget we're in a tent half the time."

How such a structure might fare in the city is a more delicate question.

In 2013, the Community Design Collaborative, which does pro bono design work for nonprofits in the region, was consulted on the project, executive director Beth Miller said. Her team saw an exciting role for tactical urbanism to create a pop-up space. But before they could dig in, they were called off the job.

"Is there a role for design in helping to come up with a solution? There may be," she said.

Optics do matter to people such as Brian Jenkins, whose Chosen 300 Ministries serves indoor meals year-round and meals on the Parkway from May to October. When he saw the proposed site near the college, by a row of trash compactors, he was outraged.

"It sent a clear message that this is what they thought about the homeless," he said.

He believes there is a need for a new indoor-outdoor dining space. But unless it's permanent, he's not leaving the Parkway.

"We have been serving 20 years in the same location," he said. "You set up a temporary structure and it doesn't work out? Now we've lost our space."

Gladstein said it won't work that way.

"Everyone's priority is to get to a permanent site right away. But development is complicated. Depending on where we land, we might need a temporary site," she said.

Back on the Parkway, holding a plate of food and seeking a sheltered place to eat it, Michael Wood, 43, said that, temporary or permanent, he'd go there.

"A place to go where they won't treat us like crap? Yes, in weather conditions like this, I'd rather go indoors."

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