Across from a neighborhood of bungalows and rowhouses along the Norristown-West Norriton border, Norristown State Hospital stretches for 225 rolling, tree-lined acres, awaiting its third life.

But what might be in store for the 30-building site, which includes a dwindling mental institution, is an ongoing debate.

"Frankly, it's a large parcel of land that's completely underutilized and off the tax rolls," State Rep. Matthew Bradford (D., Montgomery) said. "It's time to have an honest discussion of what we do going forward."

The complex, which opened with 392 patients and grew to hold thousands, has the lowest population in its 192-year history, and is scheduled to shrink further. Some of the buildings have been rented to social-service providers and government agencies, while others are vacant and in disrepair.

Two state agencies, the Department of General Services and the Department of Public Welfare, oversee the hospital, but neither has a plan for its future, said Stacey Witalec, a state spokeswoman.

In March, Norristown residents protested and turned back a state-approved bid to bring in its 32d tenant: Vision Quest, an agency that houses at-risk youths.

"When places are looking for a place to house dangerous pedophiles or children waiting to enter into the social-service system, they house them in Norristown," said Gina Bottone, one of the protestors.

Government outposts and agencies to aid the troubled or drug-addicted rent nearly half the buildings still standing at Norristown State Hospital, while patients occupy just four.

Ten of the buildings, scheduled for demolition, are roped off and vacant. Their boarded-up windows face potholed roads. Most are dilapidated, red-brick Victorian buildings, originally patient lodgings.

Today, their craggy, sagging entranceways and "danger" signs dispel any perception of warmth. Three will be torn down this year, more when the money is budgeted, said Gerald P. Kent, chief executive officer of the hospital.

"We're trying to get smaller," he said.

Neighbors, and their political allies, say the decay has made the sprawling site an eyesore.

"I don't think that over several decades we've been very good stewards of the property," Bradford said.

He and Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) say they want a direction for Norristown State Hospital beyond the ad-hoc, one-year leases to agencies neighbors regard as a perennial problem.

Officially, nothing has happened.

"We'd like to move toward a more definitive plan," Vereb said. "What that plan is, I just don't know. I don't know anybody that does know."

Meanwhile, the mental hospital's population, 380 now, will eventually recede nearly to a patient an acre. That was unthinkable when 4,700 patients overfilled the place in 1954, before psychiatric drugs became widely available and more emphasis was placed on allowing the mentally ill to avoid long-term commitments.

Norristown hoped the dwindling was a one-way street. Thirty years ago, the hospital was down to 1,200 patients, and then-City Manager John Plonski railed about "another influx of criminals" when a new ward for criminally insane juveniles was proposed.

Total closure seems unlikely. For one, the 136-patient forensic unit for criminally committed patients is often near capacity.

"The forensic unit is going to be here for God knows how long," said Aidan Altenor, the hospital's former head, who now oversees it and other state hospitals from Harrisburg.

There is, however, a precedent for turning obsolete parts of Norristown State Hospital into an asset for the neighborhoods around it: Neighboring Norristown Farm Park, an immense public park on land where patients once raised crops and livestock.

Observers talk about similar ideas coming out of the hospital's limbo.

"It would be a beautiful addition if we could get it to developable land," said Bill Caldwell, who chairs the Norristown Council's planning and economic development committee. "In a town of 3.5 square miles that was built out probably 100 years ago, you know, that's a tough thing to find."

Contact staff writer Derrick Nunnally at 610-313-8212 or