NOT LONG after John Street moved into the mayor's office in 2000, he dedicated his administration to children.
He called it the "Year of the Child," and he pledged to build a new Youth Study Center to replace the obsolete detention center on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
This was not a new plan. Mayors W. Wilson Goode and Ed Rendell had also promised a modern building to serve children caught up in the criminal-justice system.
But as Street begins his final year in office, there is no state-of-the-art building. Children and the staff who serve them continue to live and work in substandard conditions.
The problem? The inability of Street and Council Majority Leader Jannie Blackwell to cut a deal after the city spent $2.4 million in July 2004 to buy a five-acre tract for a new center at Haverford Avenue and 48th Street in her district.
Street had hoped to open the new center in the fall. As it now stands, his successor will have the honor, assuming he can find the right formula to mollify Blackwell.
The councilwoman now says that she was never on board with the site selection and that she won't introduce the needed legislation until she's sure she has broad community support for it.
Street and Blackwell reportedly remain cordial on a personal level, a friendship that had its origins in the close relationship Street had with her husband, Lucien, the former councilman and congressman who died almost four years ago.
But in the last year, Jannie Blackwell has battled with Street over a major reorganization of housing agencies and Street's plan to privatize a segment of the Water Department.
She insists she's not holding the center hostage in hopes of getting what she wants on the other issues.
"That's not my style," she said. "I don't hold one project up for another."
But now, as the May primary approaches, Blackwell says she won't introduce legislation for the center "until I'm sure that I have community support. I want to feel as reasonably certain as I can that 51 percent of my community wants it."
She says she needs "five or six" more community meetings before she'll feel satisfied that a majority is happy.
City officials are privately wide-eyed in disbelief. They point out that they hammered out a letter of understanding last February with a spate of West Philadelphia neighborhood groups.
Lee B. Tolbert, president of the West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhoods and Businesses, signed the letter and said in an interview that it's time for Street and Blackwell to end the conflict and move forward.
"I see the new center as an economic engine where now there is none," Tolbert said last week. "Overall, the 150 groups in the coalition are saying they want the city to do the deal."
Blackwell said that she is aware of the coalition support but that she continues to get worried calls from individuals in neighborhood groups.
"People have questions. They want to know who will be there, who will be walking through our neighborhood," she said. "There's traffic and parking issues and just a lot of concern."
Asked to name a significant opponent of the proposed center, Blackwell demurred.
Joyce Wilkerson, Street's chief of staff, said she was unaware of any remaining community opposition to the plan.
So why not introduce the bills, call for hearings and bring out the opponents?
Recalling a bitter battle over a proposed homeless shelter at 4508 Chestnut St., Blackwell said she learned the hard way that introducing legislation on behalf of the administration can be political suicide.
"People will say if you introduce it, then you're for it," she said.
With the deadlock now stretching to two years, the city's chance to move the children directly into a new building is long gone.
Instead, the gridlock means the city will have to spend possibly millions of dollars on a temporary center. That's because Street has pledged to turn over the site of the existing center, at 21st Street and the Parkway, to the Barnes Foundation for its new museum by late fall this year.
A Barnes spokesman said that the foundation expects to gain control of the site by the end of October and that the foundation board is preparing to select an architect for its much-anticipated building.
The city initially looked at a privately owned prison at 17th and Cambria for its interim center, but Wilkerson says it is now looking at other sites as well. The Cambria prison would require major additions such as a cafeteria and athletic facilities to accommodate children and their social and educational programs.
Wilkerson said city planners have not fully determined the costs of an interim center, though Blackwell said she was told the costs could top $3 million.
But that's not the only cost. If children are moved into the Cambria prison, the adult inmates now housed there in a low-custody program will be moved back to the already-crowded city prison system.
And predictably, the long delay has also increased the construction costs of the new center by as much as $3 million, according to Rick Tustin, the city's capital program director, raising the project cost to at least $49 million.
Just how dysfunctional is the Street-Blackwell relationship? Blackwell said she's now pushing the administration to create an interim center by rehabbing a building at the Blackwell Human Services Campus, formerly the Kirkbride Center, also at 48th and Haverford.
"It's a real social-services mecca," she said.
Put the interim Youth Study Center there and neighborhood residents will have a dry run of what it would be like to have the center in the neighborhood, she said.
The city has already looked at the enormous but aged complex and rejected it.
Indeed, city officials say fixing up a building there could cost as much as a new center.