It’s become such a familiar story in Philadelphia that you can boil it down to a few essential plot points: A developer scoops up a handsome old church and announces plans to tear it down. Hand-wringing ensues. Preservationists make a last-ditch effort to have the religious building protected by the Historical Commission. They fail, and another distinctive work of architecture ends up on the garbage heap, replaced by a clutch of townhouses or apartments.
What’s happening at the Good Shepherd Community Church in West Philadelphia offers an instructive twist on that narrative. The ending isn’t exactly a happy one, merely better than the alternative.
Unlike other religious buildings that have been sacrificed to development lately — most notably, the mountainscape that was Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church — Good Shepherd is a modest, country-style church. Built in the late 1930s for the Church of Latter-day Saints and fashioned from somber gray stone, it defers to the ornate, porch-fronted twins that line 46th Street in the Spruce Hill-Garden Court neighborhood. Good Shepherd’s best feature is its shady front garden, which creates a pleasant pause on that beautiful block, a place to rest the eye amid all that rich Victorian frosting.
But just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do developers.
Earlier this year, David Landskroner, founder of Hightop Real Estate and Development, acquired Good Shepherd as a teardown. He had just finished constructing a four-story apartment house across the street and figured he would do the same on the church site.
This time, however, the city’s preservation community approached things differently. Paul Steinke, head of the Preservation Alliance, met with Landskroner to tout the benefits of keeping the church and converting it to apartments. The University City Historical Society joined the offensive.
Landskroner countered that he couldn’t afford to keep the building. To justify his purchase price (which has not been disclosed), he said he needed 28 apartments, nine more than the little, L-shaped church could accommodate. The two sides went back and forth until Landskroner’s architect, ISA, pointed out that he could reach his goal by slipping a small apartment building into the garden.
Voila! Landskroner accepted the plan. Preservationists declared victory. The local neighborhood group, Garden Court Community Association, gave the project its blessing in June. Landskroner’s request for zoning variance (scheduled for Aug. 14) now seems assured.
Compromises are never perfect, and there are many reasons to applaud this one. ISA, which is one of Philadelphia’s most inventive architecture firms, has come up with an interesting design for the addition, a peaked-roof structure that speaks to both the church and the Victorian twins next door. The neighborhood group has extracted an agreement from the developer that ensures the addition will be covered in better-than-average materials, like zinc and wood.
For all that, the deal is a heavy price to pay to save a piece of Philadelphia’s religious heritage. Not only will Garden Court lose distinctive open space — one that brought pleasure and shade to the neighborhood — but ISA’s new structure will obscure a good portion of the church. It will be like looking at half of a face.
Meanwhile, Landskroner gets to build significantly more units than the site’s zoning allows. Because the church is zoned for single-family houses, he would have been limited to building just three homes on the property. Since there was no guarantee he would get permission for an apartment building, he needed the neighborhood association — and its sign-off — more than they needed him. But utter the word demolition, and everyone blinks.
Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. Landskroner could have easily demolished the church and taken his chances with the Zoning Board. Or, he might have done what the zoning code requires and built townhouses with ground-floor garages. Both outcomes would have been bad.
“It was kind of like Russian roulette,” Steinke explained. “We didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” Jonas Maciunas, who chairs Garden Court’s zoning committee, agreed, and noted that the additional density from the apartment building is good for the neighborhood.
Most of the criticism of the deal has focused on the D-word. Eric Santoro, who lives around the corner from the church, worries that the growing number of apartments are overburdening the neighborhood. Trash, poor maintenance, and competition for on-street parking are big concerns, he said.
It’s true that Garden Court and Spruce Hill do struggle with poorly maintained apartment buildings, but that’s a code-enforcement issue more than a zoning issue. This part of West Philadelphia has always been home to small, distinctive apartment buildings, and a few more will hardly overwhelm the neighborhood. With several convenient trolley, bus, and subway lines nearby, people can get around without owning a car. Creating a mix of housing types should add to the area’s vitality and affordability.
But just because Garden Court and Spruce Hill can absorb more density doesn’t mean every site should be developed to maximum density. It’s worth noting that ISA needed to include several basement apartments to reach the magic number of 28 units. There is just eight feet between the church and the new building. Even though ISA has made some clever design moves to bring natural light into the basement apartments, those units are likely to be dark and stuffy. Sometimes you can’t cram 10 pounds into a five-pound bag. How much nicer this development would have been if Landskroner had simply converted the church into an apartment house and retained the garden.
Such intense development is increasingly the norm. This project is the West Philadelphia equivalent of the overbuilds and facadectomies that are occurring in Center City and other hot neighborhoods. The combination of the city’s construction boom and the lack of historic protection turns cherished older buildings like Good Shepherd into vulnerable targets.
ISA’s founder Brian Phillips argues that straightforward conversions are not always financially feasible and believes that architects need to come up creative approaches to repurpose older buildings. In a 2012 exhibit called Gray Area, he explored unconventional ways of preserving parts of buildings as an alternative to traditional restoration.
Still, the deal to save the church wouldn’t have been necessary if the city’s preservation system worked more effectively. Spruce Hill, considered one of America’s most intact Victorian neighborhoods, was supposed to have been given historic district status to prevent demolitions. But the nomination has been blocked for years by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Meanwhile, Philadelphia developers treat zoning as a suggestion, rather than a law to be followed.
Under those circumstances, what happened at Good Shepherd may be the best deal we could expect. But there’s still no guarantee things will turn out so well the next time a religious building is threatened with demolition.