The Philadelphia City Planning Commission unanimously recommended a spot zoning bill that would allow St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown to become apartments without any further public approvals.
The bill, reviewed at a commission meeting Tuesday, is a last-ditch effort to bypass a painful courtroom drama that has stalled redevelopment plans for the empty 1600 Berks St. landmark. Owner-developer Leo Voloshin and Linden Lane Capital Partners’ plans would turn the building into 23 apartments.
A small neighborhood group called the Faithful Laurentians contested a 2016 zoning variance that would have allowed multifamily development on the site. It has successfully delayed the project by appealing a Court of Common Pleas ruling against the group.
Last week the Commonwealth Court ruled against the Faithful Laurentians, finding that they lacked standing.
The win for Voloshin wasn’t enough to assuage fears that the project’s opponents would appeal again.
"Unfortunately, the ruling is not necessarily going to guarantee that we’re able to move forward with the project," Voloshin told PlanPhilly following the ruling.
Enter the zoning bill, which would allow multifamily development on the site, eliminating the need for a variance and speeding up redevelopment.
The rezoning bill was introduced by City Council President Darrell Clarke in January after stones fell from the church’s facade and forced neighboring St. Laurentius School to close for three days.
“You have heard that some stones have fallen off the church building, so we don’t know if the church will remain or if it will eventually be demolished,” said David Fecteau, city planner for lower North Philadelphia and the River Wards. “If it is demolished, this zoning district would still allow multifamily development by right, but it would allow multifamily development that would have less of an impact on the neighborhood.”
The zoning change would allow the construction of a small apartment building if the building is demolished. It would require three units of parking for every 10 homes. Extensive open space requirements are written into the code as well. It would allow for building that is about as high as the church’s steeples are now.
If the Faithful Laurentians and their lawyer, Hal Schirmer, appeal the Commonwealth Court’s ruling, the case could drag on for at least another six months, regardless of whether the higher court agreed to hear the case.
Schirmer said that he is giving his client time to consider options.
If Voloshin decides to demolish the building, he will have to win permission from the Philadelphia Historical Commission because of St. Laurentius’ historic status.
Voloshin said Tuesday that he is still waiting on the engineering report from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia “to figure out if it’s fully saveable.”
Joseph Syrnick, vice chairman of the planning commission, said he hopes to see the building preserved.
“It would be a shame to have this turn out to be a demolition and a new building there,” said Syrick, CEO of the Schuylkill River Development Corporation. “I’m hoping this ordinance isn’t helping lead to that development result.”
The only witnesses who spoke about the bill came from the Holy Name of Jesus parish.
“My primary concern, truthfully, is the public safety,” said the Rev. Alfred Bradley of the parish. “We’ve done everything we can, and continue to do everything we can, to maintain it. But if it continues to disintegrate, that might prove to be impossible.”
The bill will be heard by City Council’s rules committee Tuesday at 10 a.m. The earliest it could be passed out of the full Council would be the first weekend of March.