Philly’s nonprofit legal community will soon have a home of its own.
On Wednesday evening, the second community engagement meeting was held for the Equal Justice Center (EJC), which will house about 20 legal organizations offering pro-bono services. The Chinatown project will be the first of its kind in Philadelphia, according to reps involved with its planning.
At least 16 organizations have signed letters marking their interest in being involved with the EJC, including Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. By co-locating, these organizations’ abilities to provide services are improved, said Deborah Gross, a trustee of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation and former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.
It’s estimated that the center will serve more than 40,000 people annually and produce an aggregate benefit of $202 million per year for the community, according to a report on the expected social and economic benefit of the EJC.
“Most legal services organizations occupy their own separate offices and have their own intake procedures, conference rooms, IT arrangements, libraries, and other infrastructure,” the report says. “The organizations are chronically underfunded and severely limited in their ability to meet the vast need for client services.”
It’s also meant to provide a centralized location in the city for people in need of legal assistance to visit. Organizations will be available for consultations, and self-help kiosks will guide visitors through questions like “How do I access identification?” Gross said.
The foundation started planning the EJC about six years ago in conjunction with Regional Housing Legal Services and the developer Pennrose Properties. In addition to the legal hub, the site at 800-30 Vine St. in Chinatown — now a surface parking lot — is also proposed to include a public park, hotel, multi-purpose space and affordable housing.
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“We hope the EJC will be an absolutely transformative model for the country and really change Philadelphia in terms of bringing together a number of legal nonprofit organizations that will provide efficiency but also better service to the clients,” Gross said.
Wednesday’s meeting at the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School invited attendees to answer questions about the project, such as what features they like in parks and “What makes Chinatown unique?”
Questions were printed on boards, and attendees answered by sticking dots to their preferred answer. Other suggestions could be left on Post-it notes, and interpreters were available for assistance. Reps from WRT, Pennrose’s architects for this project, said they’ll consider the responses when designing the project.
The project at 800-30 Vine St. was awarded to EJC along with the other features Pennrose proposed by the Redevelopment Authority in April 2017.
Board members of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), which supported another proposal presented for the land’s use last year, attended the meeting on Wednesday. PCDC founder Cecilia Moy Yep opposes the EJC being built in Chinatown and said the neighborhood needs more housing and parking spaces. (Pennrose’s and its former competitor’s proposals both included these features, per Curbed Philly.)
“That law center doesn’t have to be in the community,” Moy Yep said. “It’s Chinatown, and it should remain with Chinatown. It’s our neighborhood, it’s our community. We should have the right to it for the needs of the community, not the needs of the city.”
By the end of the summer, partners plan to have EJC’s design finished, with a two-year construction period beginning in October. It’s expected to open in 2021.-30-
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