New digs for troubled youth

Outside the new center are Human Services Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose, project director Jim Lowe (center), and executive director Marq F. Temple.
Outside the new center are Human Services Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose, project director Jim Lowe (center), and executive director Marq F. Temple. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

Soon-to-open center will be brighter and offer more than the old.

Posted: September 10, 2012

The building at the corner of 48th Street and Haverford Avenue in West Philadelphia looks like a snazzy new school, with its sleek design, and facade of brick and stone and aluminum trim.

It does feature classrooms, but the structure is the new $110 million Philadelphia Youth Study Center, the detention facility for people ages 13 to 20.

It's a big switch from the dowdy, dirty building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway - now replaced by the Barnes Foundation gallery - that was the Youth Study Center for 56 years.

"We've come quite a long way," said Everett Gillison, the city's deputy mayor for public safety. "At the end of the day, we'll have a first-class facility for kids."

"First class" was the last phrase people would use to describe the old building.

The center is not called a jail, and is considered an educational detention facility meant to steer children accused or found guilty of crimes away from illegal conduct. They stay an average of eight days while awaiting proceedings or long-term placement.

"The juvenile justice system is the last chance to get them to make different decisions," said Anne Marie Ambrose, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, which oversees the center.

The center, Ambrose said, needs to reflect high expectations that children can change.

The old, five-story building sent youths the message that adults didn't care about them, she said. State inspectors found peeling paint, mold in unventilated bathrooms, and sometimes as many as 165 children and teenagers packed into a 97,000-square-foot center meant to hold 105.

The temporary facility being used to detain juveniles since 2008 is even smaller - 75,000 square feet with a housing limit of 103, occupying part of the former Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in East Falls.

The new Youth Study Center is 160,000 square feet with beds for at least 150 residents. The building is mainly two stories, which makes for easier supervision.

It has large spaces, colorful walls, lots of windows letting in lots of natural light - and is the first city project built to be certified as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building.

The design reflects the services children receive and the flow of their daily activities, said Jim Lowe, project director in the city Department of Public Property.

That means the 10 rooms dedicated to the School District of Philadelphia are near the gymnasium and housing, with wide halls designed to allow for orderly movement. Also on site are Family Court courtrooms, chambers for judges, and conference rooms.

The building has an admissions area, a health clinic, outdoor recreation spaces, a garden, and residential units. Visitation space will include a play area where volunteers can babysit younger children, and children and families can meet in rooms with lawyers, social-service providers, probation officers, and others.

The center has an elaborate electronic security system and an insular design that makes freestanding walls or fences unnecessary around much of the building.

"This is a state-of-the-art building," Ambrose said.

City officials hope construction will be finished next month, with systems testing and personnel training beginning soon after. Children in custody at the temporary detention center site - there were 89 as of Friday - are expected to move to the new building in January.

Ambrose plans to transfer children more deliberately than the hurried move from the Parkway to East Falls. Officials did not know, for instance, that window screens at the temporary center could be removed. Six of the center's detainees figured it out and escaped.

"We're not going to move in before we are ready," Ambrose said.

The need for a new detention facility was talked about for decades, but finding a location and settling on a size that suited various city agencies - and politicians - held up progress.

In 2004, after scouting old schools and other sites, the city bought a five-acre property abutting the old Provident Mutual Life Insurance building at 48th and Market Streets. That building is now being discussed as a possible new police headquarters.

Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, whose district includes the new Youth Study Center, stalled the project for three years, citing concerns over traffic and security, and seeking some compensation for the community in return.

Ground was finally broken in 2009, after officials from Mayor Nutter's administration agreed to move the center's main entrance to 48th Street, away from residential streets off Haverford Avenue. The city also promised to build a community center named after the councilwoman's late husband, Lucien E. Blackwell, at 47th and Aspen Streets. That project is not yet under way.

Blackwell is satisfied with the center, including the community room she talked DHS officials into incorporating.

"I think that the community has come to accept it," she said. "We've had a lot of meetings to work out issues like parking and traffic."

The project was delayed another year after the city found problems with some of the work of the initial general contractor, Ernest Bock & Sons, which the city replaced with the Daniel J. Keating Co. in 2010.

The project is expected to end up costing $10 million more than originally estimated, due in part to that delay.

At the end of last week, many floors were bare concrete, with boxes of tiles ready to be installed. Some walls were painted light yellow, blue, and other colors. Courtroom walls were getting composite-wood paneling. Wiring and other infrastructure were still being completed.

People who live and work near the center have mixed feelings about it.

"I'm not too thrilled with it being in the community," Alice Aikens, 51, said. "But what can you do?" she said as she loaded groceries from the nearby Aldi store on Market Street into the trunk of her car. "That's not really a positive incentive for the children."

An Aldi employee said, "If there's a large amount of people down there on lunch break and they want to stop here and get a snack, I guess it could be good for us."

Jason Brown, 38, a dean of students at a charter school, can see the center from his rowhouse steps.

He isn't worried about children escaping. He even can see how the local economy could get a boost from staff and visitors stopping at stores and gas stations.

"The only thing I hope is it doesn't bring property values down," he said.

Lillie Terry, 82, lives directly across from the Youth Study Center. She had been on a community advisory committee for the facility, but stopped going to meetings because of poor health.

She is happy to have the center as a neighbor.

After the center is operating, she plans to walk over and volunteer.

"I think it's good for children," she said. "They had nowhere else to go."

Contact Carolyn Davis

at 215-854-4214,, or follow @carolyntweets on Twitter.

comments powered by Disqus