High Noon at Norris Square: Dueling over St. Boniface and rezoning

Seventh District Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez and the Norris Square Civic Association are dueling over the fate of a major development that NSCA has already put in motion: the redevelopment of the St. Boniface campus on Norris Square.

Over on PlanPhilly today, Jared Brey breaks down a rezoning bill proposed by Councilwoman Quiñones-Sanchez that would stymie the St. Boniface project.

We went to a community meeting Monday night thinking we’d learn a bit more about the Norris Square Civic Association’s (NSCA) redevelopment plans for St. Boniface and the Councilwoman’s bill. Instead of clarity we saw a rough debate over a rezoning proposal that could kill the project. What is clear: The Norris Square Civic Association and Councilwoman Quiñones-Sanchez are going to go a few rounds.

Norris Square Civic Association (NSCA) is a community group that wears many hats: affordable housing developer, community development corporation, and neighborhood organizers around issues of affordability, and safety. NSCA bought the St. Boniface campus – a church, school, rectory, and convent – from the Archdiocese in 2007, a year after the parish merged with Visitation B.V.M.

NSCA plans to create a mixed-use community hub at St.Boniface. The former school will remain an alternative high school, the rectory will be NSCA’s offices and a computer lab, and the assembly building will become a community center and small-business incubator. The most contentious aspect of the project has been the demolition of St. Boniface Church, the once-beautiful brownstone building facing the square along Diamond Street. The church and convent were recently reduced to rubble making way for the development of 15 limited-equity housing co-ops.

The St. Boniface campus, now missing the convent and church, as seen from Norris Square Park.
(The St. Boniface campus, now missing the convent and church, as seen from Norris Square Park.)

Maria Quiñones-Sanchez’s house on North Hancock Street faces the St. Boniface campus. And last month she introduced legislation to rezone the blocks surrounding Norris Square – from Front to Second, York to Berks – to preclude multi-family housing development.

That change alone could make it harder for NSCA to build limited-equity co-op housing at St. Boniface, particularly given the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s deference to district Council Members.

NSCA’s executive director Patricia DeCarlo told the crowd Monday that the $5 million in Neighborhood Stabilization Program II (NSP II) funding for the housing component is a match for $5 million in state funding toward the other three buildings. Because the funding is connected, the entire St. Boniface project could be scuttled if NSCA can’t get variances after a zoning change. (Making the demolition of St. Boniface church even harder to stomach.)

So when Maria Quiñones-Sanchez hosted a community meeting in Norris Square Monday, about 100 neighbors turned out wondering what gives?

For about an hour of intense conversation – often shouting over each other, switching between Spanish and English  – Quiñones-Sanchez went back and forth with NSCA supporters who were clearly not ready to give up on the St. Boniface project so easily.

NSCA supporters complained that Quiñones-Sanchez has an “axe to grind.” Even neighbors who have supported Quiñones-Sanchez were confused about the Councilwoman’s motivations for her rezoning proposal. A lot of folks were wondering why NSCA and Quiñones-Sanchez are butting heads.

Quiñones-Sanchez said she’s advancing the rezoning because she thinks NSCA’s plan for St. Boniface is an overuse of the site, and more generally to make sure neighbors get more notice about multi-family conversions and proposed developments because those projects will require a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Rendering of the co-op housing planned for the St. Boniface site. | Norris Square Civic Association
(Rendering of the co-op housing planned for the St. Boniface site. | Norris Square Civic Association)

Norris Square is seeing more developers come prospecting as places like Fishtown or Northern Liberties become pricier. Neighbors told me about people going door-to-door offering to buy houses. Renters fear being pushed out of the neighborhood as rents rise. The thrust of the limited-equity co-op housing is to retain mixed-income housing options.

Tara Colon, an activist with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, told me her prime concern was to make sure that people living in Norris Square have long-term affordable opportunities to rent or own in the neighborhood. “Poor folks get the shaft. We clean up the neighborhood for the rich folks to move in.”

Still no one has made a convincing argument for why the St. Boniface church site was the right one for the limited-equity co-ops. There’s plenty of vacant land in the neighborhood to build on  – unless working through city channels to acquire vacant property has proven too difficult for NSCA. Quiñones-Sanchez said that rehabilitation of vacant housing should be the affordable-housing priority around Norris Square.

“The fact is that NSP money could have allowed Pat [DeCarlo of NSCA] to buy every tax delinquent property in this area and fix it,” Quiñones-Sanchez said Monday. “She made the choice to put it at St. Boniface.”

When pressed by neighbors’ repeated questioning, Quiñones-Sanchez admitted, “No I do not want housing there.”

She was practically shouted out of the room with cries like Who made you Maria? We made you.


On Tuesday April 17, the Planning Commission will consider the rezoning bill, and in two weeks there will be community meeting round two. We’ll let you know when that is scheduled.

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