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L&I: St. Laurentius church in Fishtown not as dangerous as development team claims

L&I says an engineering report submitted by the development team this week is "not supported by the latest inspection results and facts."

A construction crew repaired the facade of St. Laurentius in January after stones fell from the church. The physical condition of the church is now in dispute.
A construction crew repaired the facade of St. Laurentius in January after stones fell from the church. The physical condition of the church is now in dispute.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections is disputing an engineer’s report submitted this week about St. Laurentius, arguing that the Fishtown church’s physical state is not as dangerous as a development team claims.

L&I spokesperson Karen Guss told the Inquirer that an inspection was completed Thursday by a team of private engineers and L&I inspectors, who found that “there has been no significant deterioration or distress observed since the last formal inspection in August.”

The August inspection, Guss said, followed the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s $135,000 effort to stabilize the building over the summer after nearly 6,000 pounds of stone had fallen from the church.

The statement from Philadelphia’s code enforcement agency depicts a more optimistic outlook for St. Laurentius, a former Roman Catholic church that was built in 1882. Earlier this week, an attorney for the development team that agreed to buy the church submitted an engineer’s report to L&I, stating that St. Laurentius was in dangerous condition and should be demolished as soon as possible. City officials said they could not share the report with The Inquirer, citing an ongoing legal review.

The engineer’s report submitted on behalf of the development team was at least partially based on a Sept. 18 inspection, Guss said earlier this week. She added Thursday evening that portions of the developers’ engineer report were “largely based upon old [engineering] reports and a pre-repair drone inspection.”

“We cannot speculate on the motivation behind the ... report released this week, but the findings of that report are not supported by the latest inspection results and facts,” Guss said in an email. “... Perhaps the author was unaware of the significant work that was completed this past summer.”

In a statement Friday afternoon, the development team that has agreed to buy St. Laurentius said it is still “committed to closing [the sale] as soon as possible,” adding that it is “committed to a use that attempts to preserve the structure.”

St. Laurentius, located at the corner of Berks and Memphis Streets, has long been regarded as a Fishtown mainstay, and the church’s iconic towers have defined the neighborhood’s skyline. It was built using donations collected by the neighborhood’s Polish immigrants. In 2014, the archdiocese moved to close and deconsecrate the building, citing “vertical cracks” and heavy deterioration that put parts of the church at risk of collapse.

A year later, church officials announced that St. Laurentius would be demolished.

Historic preservationists and Fishtown residents rushed to save the building and successfully fast-tracked a historic protection nomination. Afterward, a development team, which included developer Leo Voloshin and Linden Lane Capital Partners, agreed to buy the church and convert it into apartments.

Yet the development team was halted by a small group called the Faithful Laurentians, which contested the redevelopment plans in a series of lawsuits that came to an end this year. At one time, the group said it wanted to see St. Laurentius used as a church again. One representative later griped that the number of proposed apartments would exacerbate the neighborhood’s parking problems.

The path to development cleared this year after City Council voted to change the zoning of the land under St. Laurentius.

In the months since, however, St. Laurentius has continued to deteriorate, so much so that nearly three tons of stones fell from the church in May, L&I said. The report submitted this week by the development team’s engineer caused concerns about safety around St. Laurentius to swell again.

Guss said that in an abundance of caution, the safety zone perimeter at the base of the building would be expanded. Portions of the streets surrounding St. Laurentius have been closed for months.

She added that the Archdiocese would be responsible for completing a 3D-laser scan immediately and every six months going forward to monitor the movement of stones, which will be compared to previous laser scans.

St. Laurentius is still owned by the Archdiocese in trust for the Fishtown-based Holy Name of Jesus Parish, which merged with the St. Laurentius parish when it closed. It is not clear which developers remain involved in the project.