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Blackwell defends stand against youth center

Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell yesterday defended her stance that has prevented the city's outdated youth detention facility from finding a permanent home in her West Philadelphia Council district.

Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell yesterday defended her stance that has prevented the city's outdated youth detention facility from finding a permanent home in her West Philadelphia Council district.

Blackwell told fellow Council members she has blocked the move of the 105-bed, overcrowded and run-down Youth Study Center to 48th Street and Haverford Avenue because she's still looking for "answers" about its impact.

The answers Blackwell seeks range from parking and traffic concerns to $11 million worth of improvements in her district - $5 million to demolish the Mantua Hall public housing tower, $4 million for a new community center, and $2 million for West Philadelphia High School.

Blackwell says these demands were meant as a conversation-starter with the Street administration, but those negotiations have gone nowhere. Administration officials have complained that they shouldn't have to pay millions to appease a councilperson on an issue critical to the whole city.

But Blackwell said she was only representing her people.

"Any reasonable person who looks at the history of West Philadelphia will see why my position reflects that of my constituents," Blackwell said.

The powerful Third District councilwoman controls what gets built and what doesn't in West Philadelphia because she must introduce legislation to approve the plan. Other Council members are generally reluctant to introduce bills over the objections of the district Council member. The custom is known as councilmanic privilege.

Meanwhile, Street announced last month that the center would move temporarily to the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute for no more than three years. The city has to clear the Youth Study Center site to make way for the new Barnes Museum planned for the parkway to house the famous art collection of the Barnes Foundation in Merion.

In an e-mailed statement, Street spokesman Joe Grace said: "We remain hopeful the legislation will be introduced to move forward with the new site [in West Philadelphia] in the best interests of the youths, the city as a whole, and the council district."

Democratic mayoral candidate Michael Nutter said it was unacceptable to spend $8 million or more renovating the old psychiatric hospital.

"That is the cost of years of delay on this issue," Nutter said. "In our environment, no one can afford to waste $8 million on anything."

Nutter, a prohibitive favorite to win the November election, said he would sit down with Blackwell and Gov. Rendell to do whatever is necessary to build the new center.

"We need a new Youth Study Center and we need it now," Nutter said of the facility, which is sometimes filled to more than 60 percent over capacity.

Neighbors in East Falls don't believe the Youth Study Center move is temporary.

"They haven't been able to work out an agreement in the previous three years, and I don't see why they would be able to reach an agreement in the next three," said local Democratic ward leader Ralph Wynder, who said he blames Street and Rendell, not Blackwell, for the situation.

In other business yesterday, Blackwell also questioned whether the Council needed a gift-ban for elected officials introduced by Republican Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr.

The bill would prohibit any city employee or elected official from taking anything of value from someone seeking to do business with the city, representing a client before the city, seeking legislation, or subject to city regulation. It also would prohibit those individuals from offering such gifts.

Rizzo is hoping for public hearings on his four-bill package, which includes lobbyist regulation, nepotism prohibitions, outside employment restrictions and the gift ban.

Some Council members have begun grumbling about the extent of the bills, Blackwell among them.

"I don't believe we should have so many laws we don't know when we're breaking them," Blackwell said.