Historical Commission asked to weigh in on stay of demolition for Church of the Assumption

A stay of demolition for the historic Church of the Assumption has been continued pending further review by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, per a decision from the Board of L&I Review Tuesday afternoon.

The Board asked for the Commission to report its opinion on “the issues raised” at Tuesday’s hearing following the Commission’s next meeting, which is this Friday, January 11th, at 9 a.m. It was not immediately clear when or how the Commission would weigh in.

The Historical Commission previously granted a financial hardship to the Church’s former owner, by a split vote, which allowed the demolition to move forward. Chinatown developer John Wei bought the property this summer, and demolition notices were posted on the Church in November. Last month, the Board of L&I Review granted a temporary stay of demolition. Its decision on Tuesday continued that stay.

At Tuesday’s hearing, attorneys for the City, developer John Wei, and appellants Callowhill Neighborhood Association, argued for about an hour on questions of financial hardship, legal procedure, and jurisdiction.

Sam Stretton, the attorney for CNA, argued that the hardship granted to the previous owner—Siloam, a nonprofit agency that provides services for people with HIV/AIDS—should not apply to the new owner, a private developer. He said that John Wei bought the building—for $1.12 million—knowing that it was in very poor condition. And he argued that the Historical Commission’s regulations provide a lower bar to grant a hardship to nonprofit owners.

City Solicitor Andrew Ross made the simple argument that the Board of L&I Review’s only job at the hearing was to decide whether the demolition permit itself was approved in error by L&I and the Historical Commission in October and November of last year. The question, he argued, is not whether the hardship was granted in error: the Board of L&I Review already reversed that decision, before a Common Pleas judge reaffirmed it.

Carl Primavera, attorney for developer John Wei, argued that the Philadelphia Code provides for a stay of a permit or violation for the owner of a certain property, not as a tool for members of the community to prevent a demolition or other action. He said the City’s judgment that the building is unsafe creates a liability for Wei, which will disappear when the Church is demolished. He called Sam Stretton’s use of the stay of demolition “extremely creative.”

After a short recess following the arguments, the Board ruled that it would retain jurisdiction over the permit, that the stay would be continued, and that the Historical Commission should provide an opinion after its next meeting. John Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, said he wasn’t sure how the Commission would proceed; this type of ruling is unique, he said.

Sam Stretton said the decision was “a good start.”

“The outcome I was looking for was to remand it to the Historical Commission for a full hearing on hardship,” Stretton said. “[The Board] wouldn’t go that far; they said they would leave that decision to the Historical Commission. I’m hoping the Historical Commission will allow us to present evidence, because I can refute any hardship if we get a hearing.”

Contact the reporter at jbrey@planphilly.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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