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Does Market East makeover include methadone clinic?

Robert Holmes runs the methadone clinic across the street from the Gallery mall, and he's got news for those intent on building expensive condominiums and glittery stores in the Market East corridor:

Passersby in front of Addiction Medicine at 928 Market St. The clinic has a five-year lease. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Passersby in front of Addiction Medicine at 928 Market St. The clinic has a five-year lease. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read more

Robert Holmes runs the methadone clinic across the street from the Gallery mall, and he's got news for those intent on building expensive condominiums and glittery stores in the Market East corridor:

The clinic is staying put.

He has an unbreakable lease that runs five more years. And patients who need help from Addiction Medicine & Health Advocates are best served at its current location, he said, near the nexus of the city's public-transportation system.

"We're not going anywhere," said Holmes, the agency's executive director. "If someone tried to do something otherwise, we would fight it vociferously."

The clinic sits behind a plain glass entrance at 928 Market, tucked between a Subway sandwich shop and a check-cashing business. A "No Loitering" sign hangs in the window.

On warmer days, it's noticeable only for the occasionally loud or agitated people who hang around the sidewalk out front. Last week, the clinic stationed a staff member at the door to move people along.

Chris Omelia, 31, stood outside the 7-Eleven a couple of doors away, talking to friends and to his mother, 51-year-old Rita Omelia, all of them battling addiction.

"I'm trying to detox so I don't go back to using," said Chris Omelia, of South Philadelphia. "The methadone works as a crutch for the first couple years, but it's not meant to be forever."

He went to Addiction Medicine to break an addiction to OxyContin - "heroin in a pill" - but recently was transferred to another clinic after nearly getting into a fistfight with a patient.

Philadelphia has at least 11 centers that dispense methadone, an affordable and easily available drug, to wean users of heroin and other opiates. But Addiction Medicine sits in the heart of a seedy retail district the city dearly wants to transform.

After decades of failed plans and promises, developers and government leaders believe the sagging eight-block stretch between City Hall and Independence Mall is poised for revival, ready to bloom with upscale housing, fresh retail shopping, and maybe a movie theater. The bunkerlike Gallery is emptying of stores in preparation for a multimillion-dollar renovation.

But people trying to build or buy expensive condos don't think it a plus to have a drug-treatment center for a neighbor.

"It's a tough situation, it's a very sensitive situation," said James Cuorato, chair of the city Redevelopment Authority and president of the Independence Visitor Center.

He believes Market Street is ready to blossom. And he wondered whether, as development proceeds, a private-public alliance could form to offer the clinic an attractive proposal to relocate. In past projects, said Cuorato, a veteran of decades in city development, government has used carrot and stick - added benefits to move, the risk of condemnation for staying - to encourage departures.

A block from the clinic, a $230 million, 322-apartment restaurant and retail complex, to be called East Market, is being built. Executives declined to discuss the impact of the clinic on their project.

Kiki Bolender, principal at Bolender Architects, predicted that if Market East develops the way planners expect, economic forces will likely dictate the clinic's departure. The arrival of higher-end tenants will raise rents, and, as leases expire, companies now on Market will face competition for space from higher-paying firms.

Addiction Medicine is licensed to treat 500 patients at a time, and, in a typical year, will help about 675 as people enter and exit the program, Holmes said. The agency has been in Center City for 30 years and at its current address since 2009, he added.

He has fielded complaints about clients. But at the same time, he said, it's often impossible to tell whether someone on Market who seems anxious or high is one of his patients, given the number of troubled souls who roam the corridor.

"We do everything we can to explain to patients that when they leave these facilities, they need to be on their best behavior - wherever they go," Holmes said.

His agency and others like it have felt the sting of being unwanted, he said.

Before it opened in Northeast Philadelphia last year, the Healing Way faced legal battles and protests from residents who said the clinic would draw large numbers of addicts to their Holmesburg neighborhood.

"It's amazing," Holmes said, "how people are so intolerant about those who have the kinds of issues that we treat - people who are poor, have difficulty getting employment."

The nonprofit Addiction Medicine had nearly $3 million in revenue in 2013, up 26 percent in three years, according to its most recent tax filing. Its income derives almost completely from medical insurance and other forms of patient assistance.

In Philadelphia, heroin is still a deadly drug of choice. Among cases the Medical Examiner's Office has studied, the proportion of deaths in which morphine or heroin was detected grew from 32 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2013.

Methadone is a tool to fight that. It's an old, synthetic drug developed before World War II used today as a pain reliever and to suppress withdrawal symptoms. It helps reduce cravings for opiates, decreasing the chance of relapse.

Holmes said - and studies confirm - that treating addiction saves taxpayer money on health-care and criminal justice costs, keeping users out of jails and hospitals. Every dollar spent on care cuts the cost of drug-related crime by $4 to $7, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Add health-care savings, and the per-dollar ratio grows to $12, the agency said.

On Market, the clinic's immediate neighbors include a McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, and two cash-for-gold stores. Already, the street is changing, with electronic billboards flashing atop the old Lit Bros. building, and bright red awnings signaling the presence of Century 21 clothiers.

Just south on Chestnut Street, Brickstone Cos. is building shops and 112 luxury apartments.

"Our plans are to be here. We have our rights, too," Holmes said. "I know things change, and I know developers in this city often get their way. I've heard rumors they want us out. We'll see. They have to honor the lease from a legal standpoint."