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After stones fall again from Fishtown’s St. Laurentius, church’s potential developer weighs how to move forward

“I think that we are doing our best to figure it out," said developer Leo Voloshin, who for three years has fought to redevelop the Roman Catholic church into apartments.

The St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown is known for its soaring copper spires. Its facade has begun to deteriorate in recent years.
The St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown is known for its soaring copper spires. Its facade has begun to deteriorate in recent years.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

A Fishtown developer is working to decide whether redeveloping the neighborhood’s St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church is still feasible, he said Tuesday, one day after chunks of the facade tumbled from the historic property, which dates to the 1880s.

Developer Leo Voloshin said that although the falling masonry “didn’t change anything” for his redevelopment team, which includes Linden Lane Capital Partners, he is still working to determine “how to move forward.” Earlier this year, Voloshin commissioned an engineer to study the feasibility of his redevelopment plan, and on Tuesday said “we are just working through [that] report.”

Pressed about whether he was confident that the project would materialize, Voloshin said, “I think we are doing our best to figure it out."

For more than three years, Voloshin, the cofounder of the Philadelphia-based Printfresh Studio, which specializes in textile design, has tried to push forward his proposal to redevelop the church into apartments — only to face delays and setbacks at almost every turn. The latest complication came in the early hours of Monday, when nearly three tons — or 6,000 pounds — of stone fell from one of the church’s towers yet again, puncturing the steel scaffolding below, and landing, contained, within the fenced “safety zone” around the church.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections said Tuesday that the agency “will need to confer with the archdiocese’s engineer" before the next steps are decided. L&I has put up additional barricades to reroute traffic and widen the safety zone, the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the nearby St. Laurentius Catholic School was closed for a second day. The school will reopen Wednesday, as a result of stabilization work that was done Tuesday to secure the adjacent stones and cover the damaged areas, according to a letter by structural engineering company Joseph B. Callaghan Inc., which evaluated the building.

In February 2016, Voloshin entered into an agreement of sale with the Archdiocese’s Holy Name of Jesus Parish to buy the St. Laurentius Church, with plans to preserve the facade and convert the interior into nearly two dozen apartments. In a previous interview with The Inquirer, he said he “loves old buildings and preserving them” and has previously redeveloped old commercial buildings in Kensington.

As for St. Laurentius, Voloshin said, “it’s part of the Philly skyline, and I wanted to preserve it, and no one else stepped up.”

Yet things quickly grew complicated for Voloshin months after he agreed to buy the property, when neighbors began to disagree on what should happen to the church. In 2014, the archdiocese closed the building after merging St. Laurentius’ parish with the Holy Name of Jesus parish nearby, citing “numerous outstanding maintenance issues, including vertical cracks and heavily deteriorated faces.” The archdiocese eventually moved to demolish the property, the oldest in Philadelphia to be built by Polish immigrants, though neighborhood residents successfully fought to keep it standing with historic-designation status.

Although a large number of Fishtown residents supported Voloshin’s plan for the apartments, another group, the Faithful Laurentians, thought that the church’s interior — including its 16 murals and three altars — should be saved. The disagreement launched years of court proceedings that forced Voloshin to halt his plans. The saga ultimately ended in February, when the state’s Commonwealth Court ruled that the Faithful Laurentians did not have legal standing.

All the while, St. Laurentius Church sat uninhabited and continued to deteriorate, especially in January, when stones weighing about 700 pounds tumbled from one of the church’s towers, closing the St. Laurentius School for several days. Months later, an assessment by an engineer retained by the archdiocese found that the “towers’ stone facades can be expected to fail at an accelerating rate.”

According to a March release issued by the city, the archdiocese then agreed to inspect the property every three months.

To help expedite the redevelopment process, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke authored a bill this year to change the zoning of the land under St. Laurentius to allow for multifamily development, including Voloshin’s apartment proposal. The legislation, which faced no opposition, was passed in March and took effect immediately.

In the months since, Voloshin has been awaiting and analyzing an engineer’s report to help determine the feasibility of his proposal. Nearly 2½ years ago, he estimated that structural restorations would cost nearly $1 million. On Tuesday, Voloshin said that he is still trying to “figure out whether it’s still affordable or not, given the size of the structure and the number of apartments that we are able to put in there.” He declined to say how expensive restorations would be today, though he noted that construction costs are now more expensive.

He said he hopes to have a decision about how to move forward by mid-June.

For now, the property is still classified by L&I as “unsafe,” meaning the property is in poor shape but is not at immediate risk of collapsing. The archdiocese has maintained that the responsibility for the care of the building rests with the Holy Name of Jesus Parish, which could not be reached Tuesday.

A.J. Thomson, a Fishtown resident who lives near the church, urged quick action by all parties.

“I’m trying to figure out at what point does L&I say enough is enough — either you start fixing this or you tear it down tomorrow,” Thomson said. “.... I think a lot of us, we want to see the church preserved.”

Yet, he continued, “God forbid [the stones fell] at a more opportune time when people were walking down the street.”