MOST OF the stories you come across about the way life unfolds in different pockets of this city are simple and straightforward.

This probably isn't one of them.

The tale involves a high-profile developer, an organization devoted to helping abused women, a handful of deeply committed community members, a City Councilwoman, $3 million in taxpayer money and a little-known section of the zoning code.

It all involves the way a seemingly well-intentioned project has played out in a corner of Northwest Philadelphia.

It began in the spring of 2013, when Ken Weinstein purchased a long-vacant eyesore in the area and pledged to give it new life as a commercial property.

A year later, he quietly agreed to rent a large portion of the building to Women Against Abuse, which wanted to use the space to set up a 100-bed shelter for domestic-violence victims.

And this is where it gets complicated.

No one would argue against the need for a shelter for abused women, a highly vulnerable and ever-growing population that has long needed another safe haven in the city.

But, unlike the vast majority of development projects in the city, this one came together with no community input.

Nearby residents were left in the dark, and found out about the shelter only through neighborhood whispers.

When they asked Nutter administration officials and Weinstein about the project, they were met with cryptic responses.

The project could not be discussed, the residents were told, because doing so could put the shelter's clients at risk, so they had to trust that the city and the developer were doing the right thing.

People were apoplectic.

They soon learned that a never-before-used category of the city's recently revamped zoning code had made it possible for the shelter to be set up in the area without requiring Weinstein to explain the project to neighbors.

This being Philly, things got ugly.

The longtime residents claim they were steamrolled by a developer who is well-connected to the Nutter administration, and by city officials who couldn't care less about their neighborhood, already saturated with halfway houses and rehab clinics.

The developer and the administration contend that they're being unfairly criticized for trying to help abused women.

And the councilwoman, Cindy Bass, whose district houses the shelter, has introduced a bill to tweak the zoning code so that something like this can't happen again.

Many questions have been left unanswered.

Without community input, how could anyone be sure that the Northwest Philly location was best for the shelter, and for the goals of the neighborhood?

And do keeping a community informed and providing help to those in need have to be mutually exclusive concerns?

'Where do you go?'

Before delving any deeper into the community unrest, it's important to understand how underserved domestic-violence victims in Philadelphia have been for years.

Women Against Abuse spokeswoman Katie Young-Wildes said the agency had to turn down 12,000 requests for emergency shelter in the last fiscal year from women trying to flee abusive partners.

The city had a single 100-bed emergency shelter to meet that massive demand.

"The lack of shelters and affordable housing is a real barrier for victims who are trying to leave an abusive situation," Young-Wildes said.

"One of the things we kept hearing after the [former NFL star] Ray Rice case started a national dialogue about domestic violence is, 'Why don't [victims] just leave?'

"We wish we could change that question to, 'Why do perpetrators abuse their loved ones?' But to answer the question, where do you go if the city's emergency safe havens are already filled?"

Women Against Abuse was thrilled, then, when City Council moved in 2012 to set aside $3 million to fund a new, 100-bed shelter.

The agency shared the news on its website, and posted an update this April, announcing that it had signed a lease for the new shelter and had secured zoning to keep the location a secret.

A photo of a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the shelter, called Carol's Place, was posted on the website last month.

Young-Wildes declined to discuss the location of the new shelter, citing confidentiality concerns, but said that it filled quickly after opening during the summer.

Abuse victims typically stay in a shelter for 60 to 90 days, she said. Counseling and other services are provided to the women, but most want something that is in even shorter supply in the city: affordable housing.

"There's just not enough to meet the need," Young-Wildes said.

"You have to understand that domestic violence knows no socioeconomic or ethnicity barriers," she added. "It impacts one in three women, far more than breast cancer."

Unusual process

Weinstein has been developing properties in Northwest Philly for much of the last 25 years.

His company, Philly Office Retail, focuses on buying up old, deteriorated properties and finding new life for them. In the last two years, he said, the company has invested $18 million in the area and helped create 350 jobs.

He is also an avid donor to local and federal Democratic campaigns, including Nutter's re-election campaign. He headed Nutter's economic-development transition team when Nutter was first elected in 2007, and later was appointed by the mayor to the board of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp.

In 2013, Weinstein scooped up a 40,000-square-foot property in the area for $300,000.

He said that Women Against Abuse contacted him about housing the shelter in the building, which is supposed to house market-rate apartments as well, as part of a $5 million redevelopment project.

The shelter met an obvious need for Weinstein: Without a tenant who could pay rent, he couldn't get financing for the project.

But Women Against Abuse was the right match for the building and the neighborhood, he said, because the agency was a well-known, reputable organization.

"I develop in such a way that I do what I believe is right for both my tenants and the community," he said. "We have done that in this case."

Weinstein said he expected to face some community backlash over the project, but tried to answer as many questions from residents as he could, even though he was legally prohibited from discussing the shelter.

On zoning paperwork, the shelter is described as "safety services," a zoning-code categorization that applies to "establishments that provide fire, police or life protection."

That allows for projects to be built without community input, but it's not clear if it was intended to apply to shelters.

Another wrinkle emerged in May, when Weinstein moved to turn a handful of vacant lots near the shelter into a parking lot for shelter employees, again angering residents, who hoped the lots could be developed into something useful to the community.

Councilwoman Bass said that she learned about the project long after the wheels were already in motion.

She said that she sent a letter to the Zoning Board in support of the shelter at the request of the Nutter administration and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

"The process was highly unusual," she said. "Anytime you have a project that, for whatever reason, does not include community input, it's going to be difficult."

Bass on Thursday introduced an ordinance to amend the safety-services category so that it specifically doesn't include residential shelters.

"We're not against helping women," she said. "But if people feel like they don't have a say in what happens in their neighborhood, it can be confusing and disconcerting."

'No one will care'

Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger said that the Weinstein project might be the first to make use of the safety-services classification under the new zoning code.

"Is it going to happen frequently? No," he said. "This is an unusual situation. The whole point of not discussing it was that it was in the interest of the safety and security of the occupants."

Greenberger said he doesn't think the shelter will prove harmful to the community.

But some community residents haven't been shy about complaining to Weinstein and the Nutter administration about the way the project came together.

"What bothers me is the unwillingness of anyone in city government to give us any real answers," said Ingrid Shepard, who runs a neighborhood nonprofit called the One Less Foundation.

"I get the impression that since we already have so many social services in our area, they just felt they could put another there, and no one will care."

Germantown activist Emaleigh Doley and her sister, Aine, also have spoken out against the project, sending emails and letters to Greenberger and other city officials.

"At the end of the day, this is a great example of poor planning," Emaleigh Doley said.

"This has never been about [residents] not wanting to help abused women," she said. "It's about the process the developer followed and the thought that went into this. You can't break the rules, just because you're doing good work, and not answer for it."

Julie Baranauskas, who chairs the Penn-Knox Neighborhood Association, said that many residents of the racially and economically diverse area devote their time and money to trying to improve the neighborhood and shape its future.

"To cut out a community completely just leaves a bad taste in everybody's mouth," she said. "And when somebody says, 'Don't worry about this,' that usually means you should put it on the front burner."

Kiki Bolender, who chairs the Design Advocacy Group, said that the residents have every right to be outraged.

"I'm scared by the corruption of the [development] process," said Bolender, who co-created an advisory project on citizen involvement for the Zoning Code Commission, when the code was being overhauled several years ago.

Nutter, Bolender noted, has lately been touting his legacy - urban planning, and making zoning and development more transparent.

"I'm a big fan of the mayor's, but how can they not say that they've screwed this up?" she asked.

Bolender said she's disturbed by the subversion of the zoning process, which is designed to encourage compatible uses and development that is appropriate for a particular site.

"If their safety depends on some secret that everyone's supposed to keep, how does that usually work out?"