On Tuesday, a neighborhood group suffered a severe setback in their stubborn attempt to keep apartments out of the abandoned St. Laurentius church in Fishtown.
Last year, the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) granted a variance to Leo Voloshin and his partners that would allow them to build 23 apartment units in the old church, which the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had shuttered, deconsecrated, and tried to demolish.
The Faithful Laurentians, a community group formed solely to prevent apartments from being built within the abandoned church, argued against the granting of the variance, and then appealed the grant to the Court of Common Pleas.
But the City of Philadelphia argued that the group’s members did not identify themselves as an aggrieved party or an official organization at the ZBA hearing and therefore do not have standing to sue. On Tuesday, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Anders agreed.
Anders then proceeded to tell the assembled lawyers that, even if the Faithful Laurentians did have standing, he still would have ruled against them.
The group’s lawyer, Hal Shirmer, argued that the ZBA failed to follow its own rules because it allowed a lawyer to testify in the underlying hearing.
It is common practice for zoning lawyers to offer testimony to the ZBA and then, for the sake of expediency, ask their client to adopt the attorney’s testimony as their own. Shirmer argued that this practice, used in the St. Laurentius case, is illegal and should result in the invalidation of Voloshin’s variance.
Judge Anders wasn’t swayed by Shirmer’s line of reasoning. He dismissed the Faithful Laurentian’s appeal with prejudice, meaning the group cannot refile the lawsuit after attempting to fix their lack of standing.
Called for comment on the outcome of the case, Shirmer said he wasn’t worried and that there is always the possibility of appealing to the Commonwealth Court, which he claims is less likely to support the ZBA.
“It didn’t go well in the most easily correctable and common form,” Shirmer said about the decision. “When you do zoning in Philadelphia, you expect the zoning board is going to approve the variance and that most of the time the Common Pleas Court is going to approve the decision of the zoning board. This is not unexpected.”
Although no one from the Faithful Laurentians attended the hearing, the group’s leader, Venise Whitaker, told PlanPhilly they would appeal Anders’s decision.
Contacted about his legal victory, Voloshin didn’t sound triumphant. He says he greatly fears for the structural integrity of the building, especially as winter approaches. If a bad winter damages the building enough, it may not be profitable to build.
“We’re waiting to see if they appeal before we make any decisions,” said Voloshin. “It’s risky for us to proceed if we don’t have this zoning issue resolved. We need to start stabilizing it.”
He says that an appeal could cost them another four months, putting the nearest construction date in the middle of winter.
“If they appeal, we’re just going to take it one day at a time,” he said.
One of the neighborhood’s earlier champions of St. Laurentius, AJ Thompson, said he stopped by the courtroom to check in on the case. Thompson supports the redevelopment of the church, seeing it as the only realistic way to save the building. He is extremely frustrated by all the delays, noting that the neighborhood’s earlier efforts to save the church from the Archdiose’s plans for demolition would be for naught if the building isn’t shored up soon.
Thompson questioned the Faithful Laurentians’ plans for the endangered building: an unfunded proposal to make it a Polish community center.
“This is a quixotic quest,” he said. “Is it [Voloshin’s plan] ideal? No. But the f****** church is going to fall down.”