The city’s Historical Commission recommended on Friday that the two towers at the degrading St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church in Fishtown be demolished, marking the most decisive move the commissioners have made in weeks concerning the embattled, century-old structure.
Six commissioners — Emily Cooperman, Steven Hartner, Dan McCoubrey, Labaron Lenard-Palmer, Betty Turner, and Robert Thomas — voted to support the motion, as did Mark Dodds, the city’s policy and planning program manager, and David Perri, commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections. Besides demolishing the prominent spires that help define the Fishtown skyline, the commission recommended that the church’s front facade be protected or reconstructed.
The commission and L&I said they intended to preserve other elements of the building.
Commissioner Jessica Sanchez voted against the motion. Her colleague John Mattioni recused himself, and commissioner Kelly Edwards chose to abstain from voting during the three-hour virtual meeting.
Perri, who had urged that the commission approve the towers’ demolition, repeated his recommendation Friday to head off what he deemed a public safety hazard. Stones from the church, established in 1882 and closed in 2014, had fallen from the facade onto scaffolding twice last year.
Several structural engineers joined the long list of experts who stated St. Laurentius was in dire condition and needed urgent attention given its location in a dense neighborhood with narrow streets and little room to establish a fall zone.
“Demolition needs to begin as soon as possible,” Perri said during the call, which garnered input from several community members who opposed demolition of the church and implored officials to preserve it.
This January, St. Laurentius’ former owner, developer Leo Voloshin, said he had grown exasperated with the legal spat that reached Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, and transferred the church’s agreement of sale to another developer, Humberto Fernandini.
Fernandini, of Mountain Lakes, N.J., bought St. Laurentius in January from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for $50,000, city property records show, and said he intended to rehabilitate the church. In the months since he bought the building, residents observed that he had made little effort to stabilize it.
“If this building was in such a dire state of disrepair, they would have taken any and all measures to protect the public,” resident Dana Fedeli said of Fernandini on Friday, adding that it seemed that he had intentionally neglected the building so there would be little option but to raze it.
This summer, Fernandini submitted an application to demolish St. Laurentius, citing worries about the church’s safety. He hired zoning and land-use lawyer Matt McClure of the Philadelphia firm Ballard Spahr to represent him in meetings with the Historical Commission.
Fernandini’s proposal to demolish the church — though he said that he intended to preserve its stained glass windows and paintings and send them to a local museum — again angered the community.
On Friday, Perri took a shot at Fernandini and McClure: “You make this so difficult for us because you’re always hesitant about any type of commitment to preserve the facade of this building that means so much to the community,” he said. “We can work with you, but ... you need to do everything in your power to try and preserve the building elements that can be preserved that mean something to the local community.”
Fernandini has not spoken in the virtual meetings, though McClure said he attends them.
For weeks, McClure had insisted that the church was too unsafe to keep standing. Two structural engineers that Fernandini had hired -- Janis Vacca of the King of Prussia-based Harman Group, and Mark Coggin of the Philadelphia firm Thornton Tomasetti -- said repeatedly that St. Laurentius was in danger of imminent collapse.
They opposed the idea of another structural engineer, Justin Spivey of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, that the building could be saved with further stabilization scaffolding.
“To be clear with you, I don’t see salvaging any portion of this church,” Vacca said.
Coggin and Vacca had recommended that the towers be pulled down from the south to lessen the chance that they would fall onto the area’s narrow streets flanked by tightly packed rowhouses. From the south, the towers would fall directly in the sanctuary, or the main body of the church, they said.
“This isn’t about public safety,” said John Scott, a community member who spoke Friday. “This is about getting permission through the Historical Commission to do the cheapest, dirtiest demolition possible in a dense urban neighborhood.”