Saint Laurentius Church was built at 1608 E. Berks St. in 1882, and now there’s a growing possibility that the building will not make it to its next birthday. But let’s back up for a second, in case you haven’t been carefully following this story.
In 2013, the Archdiocese closed the Saint Laurentius parish, but intended to maintain the church as a worship site for major events. A year later though, the City made the determination that that the church was structurally unsound, scuttling those plans. Faced with few options that could be accomplished on a budget, the Archdiocese made moves toward demolition in 2015. Not wanting to see this beautiful building torn down, the Friends of Saint Laurentius group mobilized and got the building designated as historic. And that’s a good thing, just look at this building!
With the building designated historic and demolition becoming much more of a challenge, the Archdiocese instead looked to sell the property, putting it under agreement with developer Leo Voloshin. That agreement had a zoning contingency, and when we checked in on the property about a year ago, the developer was preparing to present plans to the community to convert the building to a residential use, with 23 apartments. That community meeting attracted hundreds of neighbors, and resulted in a vote of opposition by a roughly 3:2 margin. Nevertheless, the ZBA granted the requested variance in November.
Predictably, this ruling was appealed. A group called the Faithful Laurentians has sprung up in response to this project, with a stated goal of preserving the church as a sacred space and community center. Obviously, a residential conversion would preclude those uses, so you can see where the conflict arises. According to a Plan Philly story from earlier this week though, a judge in the Court of Common Pleas rejected the appeal, not only indicating the the Faithful Laurentians didn’t have standing, but stating that their appeal would have been dismissed even if they did.
We don’t really care for appeals of ZBA rulings (this blog is owned by a real estate development company, after all), so we were pretty pleased to learn about the ruling that struck down the appeal. We’re less pleased however, to learn that the Faithful Laurentians are probably going to press the issue and appeal to the Commonwealth Court. We can appreciate their desire for the building to be used in the way that they see fit, but per the developer, there’s a real risk that additional delays could push the building past the point of no return and result in its demolition rather than its reuse. As we said, the City found structural problems with the building back in 2014 and those problems don’t just go away.
Look, we’re not engineers and we have no clue whether the developer’s comments are an indication that the building is truly threatened, a scare tactic to discourage further legal action, or some combination thereof. We do know that the immediate residential conversion of this building would guarantee its continued existence for decades, while a plan to convert the building into a community space seems fraught with challenges, chiefly of a financial nature. We’re optimistic that the building will survive and get converted into apartments at some point in 2018, but still feel really nervous that continued delays could end the project before it begins. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.