City Council on Thursday voted to change the zoning of the land surrounding St. Laurentius, Philadelphia’s first Polish Catholic church, helping to clear a path toward redevelopment of the historic property in Fishtown.
The bill, written by Council President Darrell L. Clarke and introduced by Councilman William K. Greenlee, faced no opposition. The legislation rezones the land directly underneath and near the church to allow for multifamily development, while the remainder of the block’s zoning, for single-family buildings, will stay the same. The change takes effect immediately.
Clarke’s bill, which was introduced this year after new concerns arose about the 130-year-old property’s safety, momentarily caps a yearlong debate over what should happen to the church. Since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia moved to close and deconsecrate the church in 2014, developer Leo Voloshin has pursued plans to transform the property into 23 apartments, while preserving the exterior, which is listed on the city’s historic register. That plan has faced opposition from a group of residents called the Faithful Laurentians, who argue that more should be done to save the interior of the church, including its murals.
In late 2016, Voloshin received approval from Philadelphia’s zoning board for his redevelopment project, but the Faithful Laurentians appealed the case all the way to the state court, arguing that the variance he received was issued in error. Last month, that court found that the Faithful Laurentians did not have legal standing. Hal Schirmer, an attorney for the group, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. It is unclear if the group plans to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.
Voloshin also was not available Thursday afternoon. On Tuesday, he said he intends to move forward with his proposal but is awaiting an engineer’s report with the final costs of preserving the church’s exterior. Nearly 2½ years ago he estimated that structural restorations would cost nearly $1 million. He has said previously that saving the church “gets more challenging every day.”
The situation at St. Laurentius took on new urgency in January, when five or six stones tumbled from the side of the building, crashing into the scaffolding below. Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections said this week that the stones weighed a total of nearly 700 pounds. The St. Laurentius Catholic School, located on the block, closed for a few days afterward. The building has an “unsafe” designation from L&I.
Days later, Clarke’s office indicated it was working on remapping legislation, meaning a bill that would change the zoning of the parcels around St. Laurentius. At the time, Jane Roh, spokesperson for Clarke, said that “our understanding is that there is little community support for this obstructionist lawsuit" filed by the Faithful Laurentians.
“Our office definitely shares the community’s concerns that delays will only increase the odds that the structure will have to be demolished to protect the public’s safety, that interested developers will be forced to walk away, or both," she said at the time.
Clarke’s legislation rezones the land bounded by Berks, Memphis, Wilt, and Tulip Streets in Fishtown, which measures one block long by one block wide.
Remapping bills, such as the one Clarke wrote, have had a long history in Philadelphia. Known colloquially among observers as “spot zoning" or one way that councilmanic prerogative is applied, the practice has been used on numerous sites citywide. Clarke, for example, proposed legislation in 2014 that rezoned the parcel around the city’s new Comcast tower. It was ultimately enacted. And Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. successfully introduced a remapping bill in 2017 to change the zoning of Manayunk’s Venice Island. Luxury townhouses are now being built on the site.
Spot zoning has at times been criticized for benefiting only one particular parcel.
The passage of Clarke’s remapping bill comes just days after L&I released the findings of an engineering report that assessed the condition of St. Laurentius. The assessment, completed by the Philadelphia-based structural engineering firm Joseph B. Callaghan Inc., determined that “although there has been little movement of the north towers as a whole,” the situation is “precarious and continuing to deteriorate."
L&I added that the stone facade that covers the towers is expected “to fail at an accelerating rate” and that the department “may soon be compelled to order the demolition of the north towers in the interest of public safety.”