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Baker Victory presses Lackawanna on facility

A controversial residential treatment program for young people with psychiatric and behavioral problems will still operate on Martin Road in Lackawanna, even if the city doesn't allow a new facility with better security to be built there.

That's the message Baker Victory Services, the Catholic nonprofit running the program, is sending city officials.

With plans for an upgraded $15 million building stalled, Baker Victory is appealing directly to the City Council to push the project forward.

The new facility was first proposed in 2009, but residents near the sprawling Martin Road campus, along with some city leaders, have maintained that the agency doesn't do enough to control unruly teenagers roaming the neighborhood. They cite a flood of alarm calls to police and firefighters.

Former Mayor Norman L. Polanski Jr. opposed the project, saying the agency was housing potentially dangerous youths and that the facility is a drain on city resources.

Baker Victory was denied a building permit last fall when a city inspector determined the project did not meet current zoning requirements. In March, the city Zoning Board of Appeals rejected the agency's application for a variance. The board decided that the facility primarily provides health care and was not compatible with a neighborhood zoned as mixed-use residential, even though the facility was in place before the neighboring houses were built.

Rather than going to court, Baker Victory officials are trying to persuade the City Council to reclassify the area as "neighborhood commercial," a zoning designation that would pave the way for a building permit.

"Whether we move forward with this updated facility or not, we're going to be here for a long time into the future," Corey A. Auerbach, an attorney for Baker Victory, told the Council at a recent meeting. "This isn't putting in a new use where we aren't familiar with the impact."

The new facility will be a safer, more comfortable, more secure and more controlled environment, Auerbach said, and Baker Victory officials believe it will reduce emergency calls.

Baker Victory wants to build a 43,000-square-foot center equipped with an infrared security system and modern amenities for its male and female residents, who are between the ages of 12 and 21.

The Lackawanna site would be one of the first in the state to feature a "pod" design aimed at improved security and monitoring.

First Ward Councilman Abdul Noman said he fully supports the new facility. "This is the legacy of Father Baker and what he did for the City of Lackawanna," said Noman, who urged fellow lawmakers to move the project forward.

But other councilmen said they want to hear more details.

"I know we're all receptive to past ideas that got stalled," said Council President Henry Pirowski, who planned to sit down with Baker Victory officials.

"It's way too early for me to make a determination," said Keith Lewis, councilman for the 4th Ward, where the residential treatment facility is located.