The Lehigh Valley’s first drug and alcohol residential treatment facility for 12-18-year-old boys was proposed by businessman Abraham Atiyeh to the Allentown Zoning Hearing Board Monday night.
Up to 87 young males would be confined for 28 days in the treatment facility proposed at 324-330 N. 6th St., a former elementary school last used as a Lehigh County work release correctional facility.
Zoning board chairman Dan McCarthy said the place was a county-run women’s correctional facility from 1988 till 2011.
Atiyeh’s proposed state-licensed facility will offer “intense” in-house treatment to end drug and alcohol addiction. He said friends and families will not be allowed to visit during the 28 days of treatment, those in the program will not be allowed to leave the property and they will receive no phone calls, mail or packages during those 28 days.
Atiyeh said alarms will be on doors of the building and the boys staying there will be watched around the clock with surveillance cameras.
“We’re going to save lives here,” maintained Atiyeh. “That’s our mission.
“Our kids here in Allentown need help. Once they get treated, they won’t need more prisons. We all know if a kid’s not treated for his addiction, he’s going to be over here in the county prison.”
He said his own older brother became addicted at age 12 or 13.
Atiyeh said only a couple of facilities in Pennsylvania now offer adolescents residential drug and alcohol treatment programs.
“Our Lehigh Valley kids are going elsewhere when they need treatment here,” he said. “This is a good use. I don’t think it’s going to be offensive to the neighbors at all. We think we’re going to be a plus to the community and the neighborhood.”
But representatives of the neighborhood did not exactly welcome the proposal with open arms.
Most agreed such a treatment facility is needed. They just don’t want it in their neighborhood.
In response to their concerns, Atiyeh said he would be willing to reduce the number of occupants to 60 as a condition of zoning board approval, saying that still would be financially viable.
Residents didn’t accept his claim that property values in the neighborhood will increase if his “high-class treatment center” is approved.
Atiyeh said the nearest residents live right next door to the building. He said if the requested zoning variances are approved, he may buy up some neighboring homes “to give us a little more space.”
Residents also didn’t appreciate threats made by Atiyeh and one of his associates that they could continue using the place as a correctional facility if they don’t get zoning board approval to use it as private drug and alcohol treatment facility.
Atiyeh told the zoning board that if they deny his application, he will pursue a contract “with one of the counties” to create a court-ordered facility where treatment is an accessory use to the incarceration of juveniles.
But he added he really doesn’t want to go that route and doesn’t even know if there is a need for such a correctional facility. “I’m not in the corrections business. But our only fallback position here is to open a corrections facility for juveniles.”
The zoning board heard testimony on the proposal for three hours Monday night, but won’t make a decision on the case until a future meeting.
The place is being called God’s Grace Adolescent Treatment Center.
Atiyeh, who wore a small crucifix, said if the zoning board approves his facility “we will open, God willing, within 60 days.”
He told zoners he plans to spend $2 million to $3 million on the residential treatment facility.
Atiyeh and his associates were unable to provide statistics regarding the success rates of such 28-day programs in ending drug and alcohol abuse. They also did not explain how boys would continue their educations while restricted to the facility or why 18-year-olds are not considered adults.
The property covers nearly a half acre. Atiyeh’s representatives testified 26 parking spaces are along Church Street behind the three-level structure, which has a total of about 15,000 square feet and is known as the Hunsicker Building.
The property already is owned by one of Atiyeh’s many companies -- Column Realty LLC – which purchased it from Lehigh County in May 2012.
A zoning variance is needed because the property is within 1,000 feet “of other drug & alcohol rehabilitation facilities, temporary shelters, halfway houses or
Atiyeh said that section of the city’s zoning ordinance is exclusionary. He said in other local municipalities the distance requirement is from “a treatment center to a treatment center. It’s not a treatment center to a halfway house or a treatment center to a temporary shelter.”
Atiyeh wants approval as an existing non-conforming use, but having that use changed from correctional facility to drug treatment facility.
Atiyeh was not shy about acknowledging the treatment facility will be run as a for-profit business that “will make good money.”
“You’ll have to have private insurance to come here,” said Atiyeh, adding most insurance companies cover only up to a 28-day treatment program. He said insurance companies pay a substantial amount of money.
But later he said his facility also would treat “a certain percentage” of teens that need help but are uninsured.
“I have no experience in adolescent treatment,” Atiyeh admitted to zoners. “I am the owner and I have licensed people to do that work.”
Atiyeh said no out-patient treatment will be done on the property, to reduce the traffic impact on the neighborhood. He said post-28 day outpatient treatment will be done at another location. He also said the 6th Street property will not be a long-term facility where people stay for months.
He said the proposed facility will not accept boys whose primary problems are mental health issues, rather than drug and alcohol addiction. And he said kids who misbehave will be kicked out of the facility.
Atiyeh told the zoning board he is working to get a similar 46-bed unit for girls approved in Bethlehem.
Back to a correctional facility?
A drug treatment facility is “a much less onerous use” for the property than a correctional facility, said Atty. Mickey Thompson, chief operating officer at Column Realty.
But Thompson said he has a certificate of occupancy and could reopen the place tomorrow as a correctional facility.
“That’s your opinion,” said McCarthy. “I’m just not accepting the fact, because I haven’t heard all the testimony, as to whether or not the certificate of occupancy gives you that vested right.”
Atty. William Malkames, representing the applicants, said he has great respect for McCarthy, but suggested it is “very important” that McCarthy separate his function as a Lehigh County commissioner from his function as a zoning board member.
McCarthy said he would have recused himself from the case if the property still was owned by the county. He stressed he also was not involved in any prior county litigation involving that property.
“I’m not suggesting you recuse yourself,” said Malkames. “You are a fair-minded, honest person.”
City officials testify
Cynthia Mota spoke in support of the facility, but said she was not doing so as a member of City Council. She testified she has worked in the drug and alcohol field for 11 years, including four years as director of the Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, an out-patient facility for adults and adolescents.
“It’s great seeing children coming out of their addiction,” she said. “It’s awesome when you see them getting better. They’re not dying of an overdose. You see them become productive members of society.”
Mota said she had to refer adolescents who needed help to residential facilities in Reading and Eagleville. She said there is a great need for such a facility in Allentown. “We need to save our children.”
She said children are hesitant when they have to go to another city for help and transporting them can be a financial burden on families with fixed incomes.
Six objectors and one interested party – City Council president Julio Guridy – addressed the zoning board.
Guridy complimented Atiyeh for being willing to reduce the number of occupants in the facility but said he’s very concerned about statements that “if this project is not allowed, they can put a work release program there. I’m concerned if something worse gets in there, because it’s a neighborhood that we’re trying to revitalize.”
Malkames revealed that Mayor Ed Pawlowski wrote a letter to the zoning board Monday about the case, but McCarthy said that letter is not part of the case’s public record. “We’ll make our decision on the testimony we’ve heard,” said McCarthy.
Linden Street grocery store approved
In another case, the zoning board approved a request to open a combination grocery store and take-out sandwich shop on the first floor of 1101 Linden St., which had last been used as a flower shop and once was a Greek grocery store.
Maria Reyes and her husband Raul Castro hope to open the store in three to four months, primarily to serve that neighborhood. They intend to be open seven days a week, but no later than 9 p.m.
Castro said they want to “give service to the community.”
The Allentown couple will lease space in the building from Rachelle and Richard Thatcher of Coplay, who acquired it at a tax sale in December. Richard Thatcher said the entire building and the garages behind it need to be repaired, which he intends to have done.
The only objector to that plan was neighbor Kathryn Burke, who questioned the need for another grocery/take-out business, saying she’s counted at least 13 similar businesses in the immediate neighborhood.
McCarthy said the zoning board has no jurisdiction over how many similar businesses are in an area. “One has the right to succeed or fail.”
Malkames, who also represented the applicants in that case, told zoners there has been a long history of retail uses in that building and asked zoners to give Reyes and Castro “a chance to succeed in this business.”