Fight over Church of the Assumption to pivot on powers of city departments

The battle over the future of a Spring Garden church building moved into the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas this morning, with the focus on the power of one city department versus another.
 
Does the Board of License and Inspection Review have the right to hold a full hearing on a preservation case already decided by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, and then reverse the Commission’s decision?
 
Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox listened to the basic arguments over the Church of the Assumption in a 25-minute hearing and will review the briefs filed by Siloam, the social service agency that wants to raze the church building it owns, and the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, which hopes to preserve what it considers a community and historic landmark. The City Solicitor’s Office also filed a brief in support of Siloam and the Historical Commission’s vote.
 
The church was designed and built in 1848-49 by the most prolific ecclesiastical architect of 19th-century North America, Patrick Charles Keely. The Church of the Assumption, with its distinctive red, twin steeples that rise over the Callowhill neighborhood, is the oldest surviving Keely structure in existence. It is also a church with deep religious significance. John Neumann helped consecrate the Church of the Assumption, and Katharine Drexel was baptized there. Both became Catholic saints.
 
The church has been vacant for more than 15 years, since the Catholic Archdiocese abandoned the building and removed its stained-glass windows, altar and other interior décor. Siloam bought the property in 2006 and explored possible uses. The Community Design Collaborative estimated the cost of restoring the building at $4 million, which has been updated to $6 million by a consultant hired by Siloam. In November 2008, the Siloam board of directors decided it could not afford to restore or find a buyer for the property, and it sought the demolition permit.
 
Community members who wanted to preserve the church nominated it for historic designation. The building was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in May 2009. Siloam appealed for permission to demolish the church on the grounds of financial hardship, and the commission’s architectural and financial hardship committees both recommended that the appeal be granted. The full commission voted Sept. 10 to allow the demolition.
 
The neighbors then appealed the ruling to the L&I board, which overturned the ruling in May 2011. Siloam filed for appeal of the Board’s decision to the Court of Common Pleas.
 
Judge Fox will consider the legal arguments over the church in light of a parallel preservation case ruling issued a year ago by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, Turchi v. Board of License and Inspection Review, which found the Board must give “deference” to the findings of the preservation experts on the Historical Commission.
 
Marissa Parker, of Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young, the law firm representing Siloam, summarized her client’s arguments for the court:
    •    The L&I board did not give proper deference to the Historical Commission in reversing the Commission’s decision;
    •    Denying Siloam’s appeal amounts to an “unconstitutional taking” of its property;
    •    And the Callowhill Neighborhood Association has only a remote interest in the property and therefore “lacks standing” to pursue the case.
 
The judge issued an immediate finding that the Callowhill neighbors do have legal standing in the case.
 
Parker said the L&I board failed to give proper credence to the 10 hours of testimony taken by the committees of the Historical Commission and the full Commission itself. “We have extensive minutes of those meetings,” which included testimony that the church building had “no plumbing, no electrical system” and “was not fit for any use,” she said. “The minimum physical requirements of any building were not present here.”
 
Before the building was listed on the Philadelphia Register, the property “had value,” Parker said. But once it was designated, and the exterior was protected from significant alteration or demolition, it had “no value.” The costs of rehabilitating the church building were so extreme, “it was virtually impossible to entice a buyer” to purchase the property, Parker said.
 
Andrew Ross, Chief Deputy City Solicitor, told Judge Fox that the city is supporting Siloam “not because of the specifics of the case, but because of the roles” of the city departments that will be defined by the final decisions on this case.
 
The judge responded that she has “trouble” with interpretation of the Turchi ruling because the Historical Commission is a “non-record-keeping agency,” which makes it difficult to give deference to its reasoning.
 
“There is a record of Historical Commission hearings in documents and minutes,” Ross replied. He said the L&I board has the right to overturn Commission findings in some instances, but “the Board obliterated the line” in this case.
 
“The issue is whether there are facts in the case that justify the Commission’s decision,” Ross said. The Commission is comprised of mayoral appointees chosen for their expertise and judgment in preservation issues. If their opinions are not given deference, “it wipes out the role of the Historical Commission,” he said.
 
Sam Stretton, the attorney representing the Callowhill neighbors, said the L&I board was not reversing the Historical Commission so much as saying that not enough had been done to justify demolishing the property.
 
Siloam, he said, was responsible for the condition of the interior of the church because it had removed the pews and architectural details and sold interior features of the building.
 
In considering the Historical Commission’s vote, the L&I board was “very competent” in its three days of hearings. The Board gave credence to the testimony of John Gallery, the executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, who emphasized several points:
    •    Not enough time had been given in the effort to sell the church property;
    •    It is much harder to sell a property if you have gutted the interior;
    •    And the entire Siloam property includes a convent, rectory and other land – a total of about 9,000 square feet that had never been offered for sale.
 
Stretton also argued that the Turchi decision says the L&I board may affirm or deny appeals of Historical Commission votes.
 
But, he said, Turchi still needs to be reviewed for its implications. “What is the deferential standard? If there is no record [of Historical Commission testimony], a reviewing board has a right to take evidence. And if you take evidence, there is a different standard of review,” Stretton said.
 
After the hearing, Stretton told the neighbors, “The judge obviously was troubled by Turchi…  I think we’ve got a good shot here, but it’s very murky.”
 
He said the Common Pleas Court could take about a month to issue a ruling.
 

 

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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