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Philly City Council president to intervene in controversy over St. Laurentius site in Fishtown

Council President Darrell Clarke's legislation comes one week after stones fell from the church's facade, crashing through the scaffolding surrounding the building and closing a nearby school.

Last week, stones fell from the exterior of the St. Laurentius church in Fishtown, reigniting neighborhood tensions over the fate of the building.
Last week, stones fell from the exterior of the St. Laurentius church in Fishtown, reigniting neighborhood tensions over the fate of the building.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke plans to introduce legislation on Thursday that could help push forward redevelopment of St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown, the first significant step toward possibly ending a years-long battle over the property’s fate.

While declining to disclose specifics, Clarke’s spokesperson, Jane Roh, confirmed Monday that he has plans for legislation “related” to the property. In an email, she said Clarke has “consistently supported preservation of the historic structure through redevelopment that returns it to productive use.”

Clarke’s legislation, to be introduced in the form of a remapping bill, will come exactly one week after stones tumbled from the church’s facade, crashing through scaffolding surrounding the building and closing a nearby school.

The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections “is very, very concerned,” spokesperson Karen Guss said Monday. “This property cannot continue to withstand constant water infiltration and another winter of freeze-thaw cycles.”

Clarke’s remapping legislation — a practice which is sometimes called “spot zoning” — will likely attempt to change the zoning of the large corner parcel, though exactly what he will propose, or if any other properties will be included, remains unknown. The church has sat unoccupied and “unsafe,” according to the city, for the last few years.

Located at Berks and Memphis Streets, the 8,000-square-foot church has been the subject of neighborhood fights and court battles since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced in 2014 that it was closing the property, the city’s first Polish Catholic church, for “safety reasons.”

While neighbors successfully fought to get the building’s exterior, including its soaring copper spires, listed on the city’s historic register, a faction has disagreed on how its interior should be reused. The result has been months of legal filings and court arguments over a plan to redevelop the property into 23 apartment units, a proposal by developer Leo Voloshin that was approved by the Zoning Board of Adjustment in 2016.

The debate took on new urgency when “five or six stones" fell from the facade Thursday. Previously, netting was installed to help hold a section of the stones in place, but the stones that fell came from an area directly above, Guss said.

St. Laurentius Catholic School, located on the same block, was closed Friday and Monday. A person who answered the phone at the school Monday said she didn’t “have any other information” about whether school would be closed Tuesday or beyond. Guss said L&I has taken temporary measures to stabilize the area where the stones fell.

Still, Guss added, L&I is requiring an engineer’s report and a 3D imaging study to “inform its decision on the condition of the property and next steps.”

“If L&I has to order partial or full demolition to protect the safety of the public … we will do so," Guss said.

The archdiocese remains the owner of the site.

If Clarke’s bill were, for example, to eliminate Voloshin’s need for a zoning variance before he could build, there is still no guarantee that the plan would move forward. Voloshin said Monday that 2½ years ago he estimated that structural restorations would cost nearly $1 million.

“Right now, it’s possible that it could become too expensive to save because of the deterioration that has happened due to weather,” he said. Still, he said, he is hopeful he can complete his plan.

But the property’s status remains complicated by litigation before Commonwealth Court. After Philadelphia’s zoning board in 2016 approved Voloshin’s plans, a small group of neighborhood residents called the Faithful Laurentians appealed the case all the way to the state court. Oral arguments were heard in November. A decision has not been made.

Hal Schirmer, an attorney for the Faithful Laurentians, said Monday that the group remains committed to preserving the interior of the property and its murals, which he said the group believes could be disrupted by Voloshin’s apartment conversion. It was unclear Monday afternoon how the Faithful Laurentians would respond to Clarke’s legislation.

Meanwhile, other neighbors from Fishtown are continuing to circulate a petition for Clarke to take legislative action. By Monday evening, there were several hundred signatures, the organizer of it said.

In her email Monday afternoon, Roh said that “our understanding is that there is little community support for this obstructionist lawsuit.”

“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 wrote.