Juvenile justice center survived overruns, delays and politics

The new Youth Guidance Center in San Francisco may not go down in history as an architectural gem — even the nicest detention facilities tend not to get that kind of recognition.

But it will certainly be remembered as a fitting tribute to The City’s deep ideological divide — a brick-and-mortar salute to the town’s politically wacky ways. The center, which everyone agreed was needed to replace a run-down and obsolete building, almost didn’t get built because of objections over funding requirements that called for an increase in the number of beds. And if you don’t think a number of youth advocates would have turned down $15 million rather than get a modern facility, then you must not be from San Francisco.

That fight will be worth recalling when the center opens later this year, a ceremony that could be met by as many jeers as cheers. But the protests won’t be coming from anyone who has seen the old and the new, where the contrast is almost literally like light and darkness.

“The opening of a new juvenile detention center evokes a whole host of emotions in San Francisco,’’ said Bill Siffermann, The City’s chief probation officer. “But we’re trying to instill in people the idea that this will be more of an attention center than a detention center. We’re trying to help these kids develop skills and abilities to keep them out of here.’’

The new facility,which now carries the more politically sensitive moniker Juvenile Justice Center, has been the subject of stories on construction delays and cost overruns. Design flaws, faulty materials and inclement weather raised the cost nearly $10 million over budget and has pushed the opening date back a year. But that is hardly surprising in San Francisco — it’s almost impossible to remember a major capital project that came in at cost and on time.

Yet anyone who has toured both facilities on Twin Peaks — as I did last week — would be hard-pressed not to see the vast improvements in the new structure — which has greatly expanded classroom space, a 21-room infirmary, and for the first time, a large, centralized visiting area.

The center will also have a real library, a spacious multipurpose room and stunning views of the ocean — at least when the fog lifts. And it also has a new gym that most high schools would envy — even if it serves as a reminder to those who end up playing in it why they should try to stay in school and out of trouble.

“In here we only play home games,’’ Siffermann said.

And yes, the new center has 150 beds in its modernized housing units — 18 more than the old facility. The youth advocacy groups who were willing to reject the $15 million in federal grants on principal should note that the center’s population has been steadily under capacity. Siffermann said he hopes to keep the number of juveniles at the facility under 100 “because our goal is to not overutilize detention.’’

But for those troubled souls who are required to spend time there, the new detention center will be a significantly more humane space than the old, which is dark, gloomy, withered and so antiquated it looks like it was based on a 70-year-old notion of how to treat lawbreaking youths — which it was. Siffermann says he embraces the same community-based alternatives as most of the youth advocacy groups but also notes thatit’s up to the courts to determine where to place young felons, especially those who are repeat offenders. And last year, 74 percent of all the kids at YGC were return visitors.

“There are usually a lot of diversion programs before kids have to be detained,’’ said Anne Ryan, board president of the Volunteer Auxiliary of Youth Guidance Center, an organization that has been raising money and providing services for wayward kids for more than 50 years. “But for those who are sent there, the new facility will be a great improvement.’’

The stone gray building seems a bit sterile in parts, and the city-mandated art works that adorn the outside of the housing units appear like afterthoughts. But the large windows in the front provide flourishes of light that don’t exist in many lockup facilities, and there won’t be any tears shed when the old, YGC detention building is reduced to rubble next year.

The new center is scheduled to open in October, but given its history, I wouldn’t pencil the date in just yet.

For most families, never seeing the inside of the building would probably be the best option. But those who must will be glad the voices of reason here won a rare victory.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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