TODAY, the city Board of License and Inspection Review will consider an appeal from the Callowhill Neighbors Assn. to reverse the decision allowing demolition of the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street.
Last fall, the Historical Commission voted to grant Siloam, the nonprofit that owns the church, permission to demolish it despite its historical significance. Built in 1848, the church is the oldest building remaining on Spring Garden Street, and is significant to local history by its association with the city's two Catholic saints: St. John Neumann consecrated it, and St. Katharine Drexel was baptized there. The board is a relatively obscure body, less well-known than the Zoning Board of Adjustment or the Planning Commission. Luckily, its lack of prominence hasn't prevented it from demonstrating an independent streak in previous cases, including rejecting the Historical Commission decision to allow partial demolition of the Dilworth House and the ZBA variance for a UNISYS sign on the Two Liberty Place tower. Especially encouraging is the board's openness to hear neighbors' arguments in challenging city decision-making, and rejecting the notion that previous decisions are a done deal.
Some reasons the board should consider granting the appeal:
LOCATION: Philadelphia is growing again, as anyone who visits the city these days knows and the census confirms. The Callowhill neighborhood is particularly promising, one that city, state and private investors have targeted for growth (see the Convention Center expansion, the largest investment in state history, the redevelopment of the State Office Building and transit stop at Broad and Spring Garden, and the rehabilitation of the once-blighted Oldt Building at 12th and Wood). The church and its related buildings, including a convent and rectory, form a campus that has value and contributes to the fabric of the neighborhood.
PATIENCE: Philadelphia deserves better than having to choose between a nonprofit's solvency and preserving historic resources. It's clear the nonprofit should not have assumed responsibility for a historic structure it could not maintain, but the Historical Commission should not have rewarded that lack of foresight in granting a hardship.
A dangerous message is sent when historically certified buildings are allowed to be demolished by nonprofits expressing hardship, particularly those that receive public funding. Instead, the taxpayer-supported nonprofit should be expected to be more patient and lenient than a for-profit entity in seeking a solution that preserves a historic structure.
A DO-OVER IS NEEDED: The Historical Commission was split, 6-5, with Chairman Sam Sherman casting the deciding vote.
With such a close decision that reversed a preservation designation only two years old, the review board would be wise to grant the appeal so that that hasty decision can be reconsidered and more time allowed to find a for a buyer. Churches and industrial buildings take longer to find an appropriate reuse, which should mean greater vigilance from the commission to ensure that hardship is a truly rare resort.
With the real-estate market recovering, investment and development moving north along Broad Street, shouldn't greater time be given to find a buyer, or attempt to mothball the church?
Siloam acquired the property with an investment of $214,000 in 2006, and should be encouraged to be as flexible as possible in finding buyers who can afford to assume control of the property and stabilize it. This might mean rejecting the promise of real-estate riches for a more modest sum from a buyer who would care for the property.
The loss of the Church of the Assumption would make the surrounding neighborhood culturally and esthetically poorer as another connection to its rich history is severed. What would Philadelphia be without its mix of rowhouses and factories, spires and domes, parks and playgrounds, all existing in our world-famous street grid? Just another city slouching to be like everywhere else.
Let's hope the review board thinks long-term and provides the relief necessary to preserve this important asset.