The years-long fight to preserve the Church of the Assumption, a historic building once owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at 12th and Spring Garden streets in Philadelphia, has come to an odd impasse.
Last fall, the Court of Common Pleas upheld the Historical Commission’s finding that reusing the property posed a hardship, which was the basis for Siloam getting a permit to demolish the building. But earlier this month, the Commonwealth Court vacated the Common Pleas decision.
The Historical Commission’s hardship finding had previously been overturned by the Board of L&I Review, and during the interim between the Board’s decision and a Common Pleas court ruling, the building had been sold from Siloam, a nonprofit group that provides services to people with HIV and AIDS, to Chinatown developer John Wei.
Attorneys for Callowhill Neighborhood Association, which has led the preservation charge, asked the Common Pleas judge, Idee Fox, to rule that Siloam’s appeal of the BLIR decision was moot, since the group no longer owned the property. Judge Fox declined to rule that way, and instead overturned the Board’s decision and upheld the Historical Commission’s.
The Commonwealth Court ruled that the case was moot after all, and directed Judge Fox to dismiss Siloam’s appeal.
Still, the decision leaves very few hints of what’s next for the historic building, and the current owner, John Wei, isn’t offering any hints of his own.
Wei pulled a permit to demolish the building this time last year, but the Board of L&I Review issued a stay of demolition pending the Commonwealth Court appeal. Reached for comment on Monday, Wei said he still doesn’t know what he plans to do with the property, and declined to answer any further questions.
The city could appeal the Commonwealth decision, though Andrew Ross, the city solicitor who has been representing the Historical Commission, says that’s not likely.
“[The Historical Commission] made a decision, and obviously they believe it was the right decision,” Ross said. “At this point we’re in more of a secondary position, because we really haven’t heard from the current owner in quite a while.”
Ross said it’s not likely that anything will happen until Wei makes another move.
What about the stay of demolition ordered by the Board of L&I Review?
Ross said that technically the Board had issued that stay pending the Commonwealth Court review, so it could be lifted now that the decision has come down, or it could be reinforced since the court overturned the Common Pleas decision. He doesn’t know what the Board will do, and that it’s probably beside the point anyway.
“Until the owner attempts to do anything, it won’t really matter at the Board or at the Court, because nothing will go forward …” Ross said.
Ross said that the city is likely to take one step in the near term: reassessing the safety of the property. He said that L&I will “reestablish the current condition of the building,” which was previously deemed unsafe.
“We don’t expect it to have improved,” he added.
Another question remains open. Does the hardship ruling apply to the property in perpetuity, or does it disappear when the building is sold? The Historical Commission maintains that the finding stays with the property, but no court has ruled on that question yet.