For some, historic Fishtown church’s conversion to apartments wholly unacceptable

A developer proposes  preserving the St. Laurentius structure and renovating it into apartments

A developer proposes preserving the St. Laurentius structure and renovating it into apartments

Residents of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood will be voting Tuesday night on whether to turn the city’s oldest Polish church into apartments.

After the St. Laurentius church was saved from demolition last summer, a developer proposed preserving the structure and renovating it into apartments, a proposition that has raised the ire of some longtime residents.

“Any building that’s designated historical by a community should have community access, and once you gut that out and put it in little apartments, it’s gone and it’s gone forever,” said lifelong resident Cathy Plunkett, who would rather see the site converted into a nonprofit community space, though no developer has stepped forward with such a proposal.

“I walk by that building every day. That building does nothing for me. When I open the doors and go in that building is when I feel in awe,” she added.

Leo Voloshin, the developer behind Kensington’s Paper Box Studios, a workspace and studio for young creative types, has the church under contract pending zoning approval with 23 apartment units planned. He said his goal from the get-go has been to save the historic church from demolition.

“We have the financing, and the willingness, to take on this risky project, which has a lot of nuances that we still might not have foreseen. But we’re ready to commit to it and get this building saved,” Voloshin said. “We’ve looked at doing a commercial one-occupant renovation, but it wouldn’t pencil out. It just wouldn’t work.”

Plunkett, though, said she’s worried that two dozen more residents on narrow East Berks Street is too much density, saying the attendant parking pressure and strain on underground infrastructure are causes for concern.

And even though the plan would preserve a historic building with its landmark copper spires, the current redevelopment effort is still a symbol of gentrification, she said.

“I think a lot of the older residents are tired of seeing the community ripped apart with all this new construction. It’s not becoming in the neighborhood, it’s taking away from the neighborhood,” she said. “Even if you talk to the newer people who moved in, say, 10 years ago, the reason they moved into the neighborhood was because it was quaint. It’s losing it.”

A.J. Thomson and other native Fishtown residents support the project despite development worries.

“Believe me, there are nights when I curse and scream and drive around for another 10 minutes looking for a spot. Would I do that to ensure that St. Laurentius is preserved?” Thomson wrote on a community forum. “Of course I would.”

After Tuesday’s community vote, the matter will move to the zoning board of adjustment, which will have the final say over whether to approve the project.

The fate of St. Laurentius has been debated since September 2013, when it merged with the Holy Name parish two blocks away.  

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is operating under an annual deficit of $700,000, has long held tearing the building down would be far cheaper than repairing it.

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