Holmesburg residents: Methadon't!

Posted: December 05, 2013

WHEN PATTI Vaughn, who has lived on the same Holmesburg block for 34 years, saw the Nite Owl neighborhood taproom on her corner deteriorate into the Last Call Tavern nuisance bar, she fought a long, lonely battle to shut it down.

Vaughn's neighbors agreed with her about the bar's loud music shattering the late-night quiet and about the closing-time brawls that spilled onto Decatur Street and into the middle of Frankford Avenue.

But the neighbors were nervous about publicly opposing the bar. So Vaughn repeatedly called the police, the Liquor Control Board and the District Attorney's Public Nuisance Task Force.

She fought the fight alone. A few years ago, after a man was shot nine times outside the bar, she won.

Now Vaughn is fighting a new threat to her neighborhood at the same corner, but this time she's not alone.

Since rumors started in 2011 that the shuttered bar's new tenants planned to open a methadone clinic, Vaughn has been joined by Holmesburg and Mayfair civic leaders and by hundreds of residents in a legal battle to prevent drug addicts from getting methadone treatment near a day-care center, an elementary school and a children's dance studio.

Vaughn said this is not just a fight to keep addicts off her front porch - which faces the rear of the proposed Healing Way methadone clinic - but a fight for the life of two residential neighborhoods.

"Plenty of family members have used methadone," said Joe DeFelice, who chairs the Mayfair Community Development Corp. and is the Mayfair Civic Association's legal counsel.

"I've had cousins and neighbors who used it," he said. "Kids I grew up with are on methadone. All of them say the same thing: 'You wouldn't want that [clinic] in your community.'

"I'm not against methadone treatment," DeFelice continued. "But I've heard that some [addicts] go in, get their methadone, then go out and buy drugs on the street in front of the clinic. People have told me, 'If you want to buy drugs, go where there's a methadone clinic.' "

State Rep. Kevin Boyle, who has opposed the Healing Way methadone clinic since 2011, said: "Putting a massive medical facility that treats hundreds of heroin addicts on the same block as a kids' day-care center and a kids' dance studio with a school across the street is the height of sheer madness and irresponsibility. No serious provider would do this."

City Councilman Bobby Henon said the Healing Way owners have no experience in distributing methadone.

"Their experience is in a 'We-buy-gold-for-cash' business in Center City," Henon said. " Cash is the key word, because a methadone clinic is a cash cow."

He said Healing Way's owners "snuck in" the business without any input from the community.

"They want to jam this down the community's throat," Henon added. "They refused to sit down with anybody. We're not going to stand for this."

Michelle Yanovsky, one of Healing Way's co-owners, told the Daily News that "local politicians," whom she declined to identify, canceled several meetings to discuss the clinic.

Yanovsky said that "when all this ruckus started" over the Frankford Avenue location, Healing Way was willing to move its proposed clinic to State Road near Rhawn Street, a mile from the current site, in a nonresidential area dominated by prisons and commercial properties.

"The politicians told us, 'No, it's not going to happen,' because it would never get rezoned," Yanovsky said. "But it did get rezoned and now NET [NorthEast Treatment Centers] is opening a methadone clinic there."

The NET clinic on State Road is also being contested by neighborhood groups and businesses. But unlike Healing Way, NET is an experienced nonprofit provider with nine health-care clinics in Philadelphia.

And because the State Road location is in a nonresidential area, its negative impact on families and children is not the big objection.

Also unlike Healing Way, NET went through the community-vetting process.

"That makes us look like the bad guys," Yanovsky said. "Local politicians canceled four or five meetings with us, so that never happened."

She twice declined to name the "local politicians."

Henon and Boyle, the elected officials leading the opposition to Healing Way's clinic, said they were not contacted by Healing Way owners about any meetings.

"Healing Way tried to do everything secretly," Boyle said.

"They've had such total disregard for the community that they poisoned the well from the get-go."

After Healing Way got an over-the-counter permit from the city's Licenses & Inspections Department, Boyle said, he and other elected officials appealed to the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment, which overturned the permit.

Then Healing Way appealed the zoning board's decision in Common Pleas Court and won. The community is appealing that decision in Commonwealth Court while Healing Way awaits a state license to open.

"I want to see people get treatment," Boyle said. "But this is not a responsible location. We already have two methadone clinics within two miles of here, and possibly a third on the way on State Road. As an elected representative of Holmesburg and Mayfair, I think State Road is a much less controversial location and NET is a much more responsible provider."

Henon said the community's pending legal appeal is based upon the "gray area" question of whether zoning for a medical office includes permission to distribute narcotics such as methadone.

"With hundreds of addicts going there on any given day, loitering around, we have major safety concerns," Henon said.

Yanovsky said Healing Way would address those concerns. "A methadone clinic is not what it used to be," she said. "This will be highly controlled by the DEA [federal Drug Enforcement Administration]. There will be tons of security. People are not going to be allowed to hang out outside."

A City Council bill that passed recently will require community vetting for all new medical offices in the Northeast, but the measure does not apply to Healing Way or the NET clinic.

Vaughn, 61, who retired after 35 years as a federal contracting agent and has the no-nonsense manner of an activist who fought a nuisance bar and won, said she believes that hundreds of heroin addicts will be hanging around outside the clinic, waiting for their methadone and their mandatory counseling sessions.

"People living here are either young families who have moved in or old-timers who raised their families here and are now living in mortgage-free homes," Vaughn said.

"In the afternoons, there are older people going to the store, and young kids on bikes and skateboards riding up and down the block. And that's when the addicts will be hanging around."

She said she's concerned "about people fleeing the neighborhood. Property values will decline, because who is going to want to buy a house across from a methadone clinic?"

As chairman of the Mayfair CDC, DeFelice said the Healing Way methadone clinic would seriously harm well-funded plans to revitalize a two-mile stretch of the Frankford Avenue business corridor from Harbison Avenue to Rhawn Street.

Powered by $85,000 a year in tax-credit funding from Allegheny Iron Metal Corp. and a projected $250,000 a year in voluntary "business-improvement district" fees contributed by hundreds of Frankford Avenue merchants, the community plans to hire corridor managers and staff to keep the avenue clean, streetscape it and market it as the shopping destination it was back in the day.

"I know the '60s and '70s are not coming back," DeFelice said. "I'm not going to Frankford and Cottman to buy a suit or a fedora. But if the avenue is clean and well-advertised, it will come back.

"East Passyunk Avenue will tell you the story," he said. "From 10 years ago to today, it's night and day there. We don't want to be East Passyunk Avenue. We just want to be a better Mayfair."

DeFelice said he envisions "hiring people to be out at 5 a.m. cleaning up trash and hosing down the sidewalk to create a friendlier atmosphere."

Putting a methadone clinic in the middle of those plans, he said, would destroy them.


On Twitter: @DanGeringer

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