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After shelter controversy, bill is killed

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass said a bill to amend the zoning code had to be held due to a lack of support.

Cindy Bass   (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )
Cindy Bass (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )Read moreINQ SUWA

DID SOME behind-the-scenes maneuvering kill a City Council bill aimed at changing a controversial part of the zoning code?

That's the question left hanging in the air after Council's Committee on Rules abruptly canceled a hearing scheduled for last Monday on the bill, introduced last month by Councilwoman Cindy Bass.

Northwest Philadelphia residents were expected to testify about concerns over the secretive way a shelter for abused women came to be housed in their neighborhood, located in Bass' district.

But Bass said she had to pull the bill after realizing that she didn't have the support of the Nutter administration or of the committee's chairman, Councilman William Greenlee.

"When something like this happens, it undermines everyone's belief in the public process," said Kiki Bolender, who co-created an advisory project on citizen involvement for the Zoning Code Commission when the city overhauled its outdated code several years ago. "Is this really how things should work for complicated problems?"

The thorny, convoluted issue breaks down like this:

* City Council set aside $3 million in taxpayer money in 2012 to help Women Against Abuse open a shelter for domestic-violence victims. At the time, the city had just a single, 100-bed shelter for abused women, forcing Women Against Abuse to turn down thousands of requests for emergency shelter every year.

* The agency ended up agreeing to house the shelter in a large property that developer Ken Weinstein was rehabbing in Northwest Philly. This was wonderful news for the ever-growing population of abused women in the city. But nearby residents and businesses weren't notified that the shelter was coming. When neighbors inquired, Weinstein and city officials said that few details could be shared because doing so would have jeopardized the safety of the shelter residents.

* The lack of transparency was owed to the fact that the shelter is described on zoning paperwork as "safety services," a categorization that allows for projects like police stations, firehouses and "life-protection" establishments to be built without consulting nearby communities.

Bass' bill sought to amend the zoning code so that future "safety services" projects wouldn't include residential shelters.

The reasoning was pretty simple: People ought to have a right to discuss what gets built in their neighborhoods, especially in areas like Northwest Philly that already are inundated with halfway houses and rehab clinics.

So what happened?

Bass said she worked with the City Planning Commission and the Nutter administration to develop the bill.

"This was the administration's bill," she said. "I guess everyone over there wasn't in agreement with it, and so after we introduced it, they decided they no longer wanted to support what they had drafted."

Bass called the reversal "very frustrating."

She said that after the Daily News wrote last month about the controversy surrounding the shelter, Women Against Abuse began to lobby against the bill.

"They . . . were asking people to call and speak to me, and to influence me," she said.

Bass noted that some neighborhoods never have to deal with shelters and rehab clinics, while in others they're prevalent.

"That's what this is really about," she said. "It's not about being anti-anyone. It's about how do we strategically go about what we place and where."

A Women Against Abuse spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Greenlee, who helped secure the funding for the new shelter, said he believed that Women Against Abuse had concerns about the bill attracting unwanted attention to the shelter.

"You have women, often with children, trying to get away from a dangerous situation," he said. "I don't know if 'unique' is the right word, but it's certainly an unusual situation. It's not like you have these facilities all over the place."

Mark McDonald, Mayor Nutter's spokesman, said in an email that a Planning Commission staffer had helped Bass draft the bill, but that technical-staff work "does not constitute an endorsement in policy terms by the administration."

McDonald said the administration was looking forward to working with Bass and community residents to deal with illegal group homes and other neighborhood problems, but did not support Bass' bill as it was drafted.

Luke Butler, the chief of staff for Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Alan Greenberger, also said in an email that the administration "opposed [the bill] from the beginning."

Germantown activist Emaleigh Doley was among a handful of community leaders invited to discuss the bill privately with Greenberger and Bass on Dec. 5.

"The cancellation of the bill should raise eyebrows. This was never a transparent process," Doley said. "If the bill was so problematic, what better place to talk it out than at a hearing inside City Hall?"

Doley said that she and other residents aren't opposed to well-run social-service operations, but believe that the community needs to be a part of development discussions.

"If the surrounding community is not considered part of the equation, then there is still a problem with the law and the city's process," she said.

Bass said she hoped that some good could come out of this. Greenberger, she said, had pledged to be involved in efforts to address longstanding neighborhood problems like the illegally run halfway houses and boarding homes that populate Northwest Philly like open sores.

"We're having ongoing talks which we hope will lead to a resolution," she said.