FAMILIES FACING crises like divorce, domestic violence, and child-custody battles face an even bigger crisis when they reach Family Court, which is underfunded, overcrowded with cases, and rife with enough physical and structural obstacles to make justice for families elusive.

So a thorough debate over where the best place to build is welcome - if it actually results in a new facility. Unfortunately, a hundred debates have begun over the last few years, only to sputter and die with no resolution.

Lately, a site at 15th and Arch streets was gathering momentum, and enough support, to suggest that finally, this long-overdue project would happen. Now, an alternate site being promoted by state Sen. Vincent Hughes has reopened the debate. So far, though, the debate resembles one of those holiday dinners of a large dysfunctional family: The tension's thicker than the gravy, and any minute, it feels like the food's going to start flying.

The 15th and Arch site has the support of many advocates, including Mayor Street. State funds are necessary, but Gov. Rendell hasn't yet committed. Detractors question whether prime Center City space should be earmarked for a court building.

Supporters of a second site at 4601 Market St., which now include mayoral hopeful Michael Nutter, say that this location has many advantages, and could bring much needed vitality and growth to West Philadelphia. Advocates for Family Court clients and others say that siting the court away from lawyers, advocates and other judicial buildings in Center City would add an obstacle to a process that already has far too many.

The 4601 Market site is owned by a nonprofit group whose board includes Hughes. Although he doesn't see that as a complication, the presence of state funds will surely put a can of worms on that dinner table.

Further complicating the issue: Proponents of 4601 Market want to include the Youth Study Center in the Family Court complex. The center has its own rocky history: Its long-planned move to 48th Street and Haverford Avenue has been stalled by City Councilwman Jannie Blackwell, who has refused to introduce the necessary legislation in Council.

All of this was brought to a head Wednesday, when Street signed enabling legislation for a lease with the Barnes Foundation, to be sited at the current YSC site, and suggested he's got yet another site to house the YSC temporarily. Nutter wasted no time in blasting the choice.

Yikes! Can't we all just get along?

A new Family Court complex is critical. So far, what's missing is not a promising site, but a rational process for deciding which site will work best. Where's the honest broker to help negotiate a solution, remove the politics, pull together the necessary support and dollars to make this a reality?

In any other city, that might be a strong Planning Commission with enough independence and authority to guide this process.

That's not the commission the new mayor will inherit. But it's one he could create, and should - especially if he wants to avoid the kind of Sisyphusian battle the Family Court building has come to represent. *