As Catholic Health Care Services chief executive John Wagner often says, building affordable housing is a long process, and you quickly realize you'll never be able to build enough.

Yet Wagner keeps trying, and St. John Neumann Place II, at 2627 Mifflin St. in South Philadelphia, is the newest example of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's efforts to try to meet the needs of the area's seniors.

The $15 million project broke ground in August on 1.39 acres of the campus of the former St. John Neumann High School. (The building was closed in June 2004 after the school merged with St. Maria Goretti High School.)

When it opens a year from now, Wagner said, the three-story, L-shaped structure - designed by Blackney Hayes Architects, with Domus as general contractor - will be home to 52 one-bedroom apartments for seniors age 62 and older.

The new facility will have a wellness center operated by Catholic Health Care Services and open to residents as well as age- and income-qualified neighborhood residents.

Based on inclusion of the wellness center, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency awarded the project tax credits for "Innovation in Design."

Given the need for gap funding, the archdiocese committed $1.5 million of its own capital and donated the land.

The structure has been designed to meet the Passive House Institute's building standards and will exceed the criteria set by the Enterprise Green Community's standards. Operating costs for both the development and its residents will be significantly reduced.

Although "the vision" for St. John Neumann Place II, as Wagner put it, started coming into focus in 2013, Suzanne O'Grady Laurito, the archdiocese's senior project manager, dated its genesis to January 2004, with the school's closing and the merger with Goretti.

Neighbors and members of the surrounding parishes appealed to Cardinal Justin Rigali to develop the site for senior housing, Wagner said. The request was consistent with archdiocesan policy to explore adaptable reuse of vacant church facilities into affordable housing for older adults and those "requiring special assistance to meet daily living needs."

The prelate asked, "Can we do this?" Laurito said, and, in response, "I walked from Snyder Avenue to Tasker Street, from 26th Street to 30th Street," talking with residents, getting them to sponsor meetings in their homes.

Wagner described it as "a personal approach designed to develop a real sense of partnership" for developing a site whose future "would have an impact on the whole community."

The initial result was St. John Neumann Place, "a repurposing of a church asset" - the old high school - "for the benefit of seniors," he said. That $16.9 million, 75-unit project, begun in fall 2006 and opened in 2008, included demolishing the gym, auditorium and cafeteria at the rear of the school.

Since it opened, St. John Neumann Place has been 100 percent occupied, said Heather Huot, manager of housing social services and operations for Catholic Health Care Services.

"Out of those original meetings, there was a commitment to a second phase," Huot said. Neighbors and first-phase residents also participated in the process.

Unlike "market-rate housing, where developers will put up whatever zoning will allow, this is what I call holistic outreach to find a neighborhood consensus," said Ed Hillis, president of Domus, which does many affordable-housing projects in the region.

"The result," Hillis said, "is a beautiful building."

Laurito said local residents were pleased to hear about it and had no major requests for changes. The neighbors asked whether the older and newer projects could have separate entrances, and they got it, Wagner said.

The overall project is an effort "to build wealth in these neighborhoods, since we often are the first new investment, and to take care of our seniors," Wagner said.

Noted Huot: "The attention to detail shows seniors they are worth it."

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