After more than two years of heated controversy surrounding the fate of the abandoned St. Laurentius Church in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, a court decision may finally bring the saga closer to a resolution.
On Tuesday, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled that a small but contentious Fishtown neighborhood group called the Faithful Laurentians did not have legal standing to appeal a zoning decision that allows a developer to convert the former Catholic church into 23 apartments. After Philadelphia developer Leo Voloshin obtained zoning variances from the city in 2016, the Faithful Laurentians appealed to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and again to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that the variance should not have been issued.
In its Tuesday decision, a panel of three judges ruled, among other decisions, that the Faithful Laurentians did not qualify as an “aggrieved party” in the case because current and former members of the group failed to identify themselves as such at a 2016 hearing in front of Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.
“At the board’s hearing on Nov. 1, 2016, not a single person who testified identified themselves as a member of the Faithful Laurentians or stated that they were appearing on its behalf,” Judge Ellen Ceisler wrote in the opinion.
With the Faithful Laurentians’ appeal now rejected, many Fishtown residents are hopeful that Voloshin’s plan to redevelop the church, at Berks and Memphis Streets, into apartments can become closer to a reality. While the case was winding its way through the legal system, the Fishtown developer’s plans were paused. All the while, the church sat empty.
Still, there is no guarantee that the Faithful Laurentians will not appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — or that legislation introduced by City Council President Darrell Clarke to push the development forward will pass. Clarke in January drafted legislation that would rezone the parcel to accommodate Voloshin’s apartment plan. A committee hearing on that bill is scheduled at the end of the month.
Since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia moved to close and deconsecrate St. Laurentius Church in 2014, the controversy surrounding the Faithful Laurentians group has engaged neighborhood residents and onlookers almost as much as the fate of the church itself. The group — represented legally by lawyer Hal Schirmer — has a now-defunct website and an unknown number of members. Schirmer has repeatedly declined to provide details about the size of the group, alleging that members could be identified and subject to harassment by neighbors who support Voloshin’s project.
In many ways, the Faithful Laurentians and a separate faction of Fishtown residents want the same thing: to protect the more than century-old property from the wrecking ball. How exactly it should be saved and reused, however, is where the harmony falls apart.
If Voloshin and a subset of Fishtown residents were to have it their way, the exterior of the building — the city’s first Polish Catholic Church — would be restored, and its interior would be converted into the apartments. (No parking is included in Voloshin’s plan.) The Faithful Laurentians, in contrast, have maintained that more should be done to preserve the church interior and its murals. Schirmer said last month that the group believes the apartment plan would disrupt those interiors.
Yet despite both groups’ shared goal, St. Laurentius has been hanging in the balance for several years. Since the archdiocese closed the property, it has sat abandoned and surrounded by scaffolding.
The church — including its soaring copper spires — is listed on the city’s historic register, meaning that it cannot be significantly altered or demolished without approval from the Historical Commission.
The debate over St. Laurentius took on new urgency last month, when “five or six” stones fell from the church’s exterior facade. The nearby St. Laurentius Catholic School was closed for several days, and the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections ordered an engineer’s report and a 3D imaging study to “inform its decision on the condition of the property and next steps.”
L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said at the time that the agency would order partial or full demolition of the property if necessary to protect public safety.
On Tuesday, she said L&I was still waiting on the engineer’s report. If development at the site proceeds, Guss said, the agency would “work with the developer to make sure that [construction] is done in a safe, thoughtful way with all required inspections and engineering reports and safety measures in place.”
Schirmer said his clients have yet to decide whether to appeal the Commonwealth Court’s decision but called it “one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever seen.” He cited a 2018 Commonwealth Court decision that ruled that the Faithful Laurentians exist as evidence the court “ignored [its own] prior findings.”
A potential appeal by the Faithful Laurentians could be disrupted, however, by Clarke’s legislation, introduced last month by Councilman William K. Greenlee. After the stones fell from the church, Clarke’s office drafted the rezoning bill.
Jane Roh, Clarke’s spokesperson, said in a January email that Clarke’s office believes there is “little community support for this obstructionist lawsuit.” Roh said Tuesday that the Commonwealth Court’s decision “means that we can proceed with rezoning and the developer can get the appropriate permits.”
Voloshin said he is waiting to see whether the group appeals the decision. In the meantime, he said, “we are adamantly pursuing the remapping that Councilman Clarke put forward."
Last month, Voloshin expressed concern that remediating the building could possibly be too expensive now “because of the deterioration that has happened due to the weather.” Nearly 2½ years ago he estimated that structural restorations would cost nearly $1 million.
“I think the reality is that we’re going to try to make something work,” Voloshin said Tuesday. “We’re interested in preserving the building right now … it just depends on how that report comes out.”
Earlier this year, community members expressed continued support for Voloshin’s proposal with a petition asking the Faithful Laurentians to cease their lawsuit. The organizer of the petition said last month that it had received several hundred signatures.
In a statement, A.J. Thomson, a neighbor who supported Voloshin’s apartment proposal, said Tuesday that if the Faithful Laurenitans “are as faithful to the St. Laurentius legacy and the school … as they profess to be, they will stop their nonsensical, spiteful actions immediately.”
Thomson continued: "If their actions claim our historical church and our school, because of the delay solely caused by their selfish, misguided acts that may have rendered St Laurentius beyond repair, their shame in Fishtown will echo for generations.”