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The process of securing a new unified building for the First Judicial District’s Family Court inched forward Wednesday when the Pennsylvania Senate passed the budget devoted to public works projects. The proposed 2007-08 fiscal year capital budget now has been referred to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ rules committee. The House passed the capital budget on July 2, 2007, but the House must now consider the amendments the Senate has added, which include the proposed Family Court site. Late last year, state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, D-Philadelphia, added a $200 million appropriations request into an omnibus amendment to the proposed capital budget for a Family Court building at the site of a parking lot at 15th and Arch streets. The appropriations item calls for $200 million toward the “acquisition of site, design, construction, infrastructure and other related costs for a facility to be located at 15th and Arch streets to be leased by the Department of General Services to the city of Philadelphia for fairmarket value for use by the First Judicial District for a Family Court building.” The appropriations item is the first time an attempt has been made to define such a large pot of public money for a building that would consolidate the Family Court’s juvenile branch at 1801 Vine St. and the domestic relations branch at 34 S. 11th St. into a more spacious, modern and user-friendly home than the current divided, cramped and outdated arrangement. “I’m elated,” First Judicial District Court Administrator David Lawrence said Thursday afternoon about the budget news. The original appropriations language first inserted in the omnibus amendment called for $200 million for “the acquisition of site, design, construction, infrastructure and other related costs for the FJD Family Court building to be located at 15th and Arch streets.” The “important thing is that the building itself will be owned by the state of Pennsylvania,” said Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille. “It won’t be owned by the city of Philadelphia. That property, at some period of time, might become very valuable. We hope to keep it as a courthouse, but it will be in a choice part of town in the city of Philadelphia.” The original line item did not spell out that the building would be state-owned and leased to the city, but the new language made explicit the understood proposal, Castille said. The city will also help with the building’s finances by the sale or development of 1801 Vine St., Castille said, which will be “prime for an upscale hotel or condominiums” with its proximity to the proposed locale of the Barnes Foundation’s priceless art collection. The Barnes move to Museum Row is still being litigated. The city also has to provide each year about $14 million for the maintenance of the building and employees’ salaries, Castille said. There also is a $3 million FJD fund – seeded from filing fees – that is dedicated to help toward the early design costs of the building, Castille said. Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a longtime advocate of a new Family Court site, called the Senate’s capital budget passage “one important step closer toward a new building that is vital for improving the justice system for so many Philadelphians.” “There have been many twists and turns so far in seeking a new building,” Marks said. “Although there’s been interest by many for years, the project needs money. To make it a reality, every step people have said, ‘Show me the money.’ This is an important step forward.” If the appropriations item gets through both houses of the General Assembly and is signed into law by Gov. Edward G. Rendell, it will still be up to the executive branch to decide which capital projects will be financed by bonds depending upon what is financially affordable to avoid hitting the Pennsylvania Constitution’s debt ceiling. Not all proposed public projects get built. The state’s current credit rating makes the prospect of borrowing for the project more of a financially prudent endeavor, Castille said. Castille also said he has personally talked to Rendell and “he says he’s all on board for that site. He thinks it’s a win-win situation.” The Rendell press office didn’t respond to a request for comment before press time. While a number of sites have been proposed to be a consolidated home for Family Court in recent years, the 15th and Arch site has had buy-in from key stakeholders like the FJD, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, former Mayor John Street and site owner the Philadelphia Parking Authority. Mayor Michael Nutter once expressed support for an alternate site at 46th and Market streets in West Philadelphia, but he has since backed off that position since state stakeholders prefer the 15th and Arch streets site and there is a large appropriation dedicated exclusively to it. “The mayor has said he supports that plot of land, which I don’t see why he shouldn’t because he’s said it’s a windfall for the city,” Castille said. The court system has assumed that the project would cost $175 million, but the $200 million was requested to allow for the usual unforeseen construction costs, Castille said. The lease on the 11th Street site expires in the next two months, but the FJD is negotiating with the landlord of the site to extend its lease, Castille said, and other sites, including 20th and Market, would be available to move the domestic relations branch into. Developer Oliver Tyrone Pulver Corp. has an option on the property and will build to suit if financial backing can be secured, The Legal previously reported. Castille said he hopes for the best regarding the proposed project, but he remains realistic about the building’s chances because he knows how government works. “It’s one step forward and there are many more to go,” Castille said.

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