L&I review board releases findings in support of Church of the Assumption’s preservation

Siloam, the social service agency that owns the historic Church of the Assumption, did not try hard enough to sell the property before seeking permission to demolish it, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission was wrong to grant that permission based on financial hardship, according to the Board of License and Inspection Review.

The L&I board issued its findings last week to the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, which will now consider responses to the findings from Siloam and the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, which has been battling to save the building it considers a community landmark.

In May, the L&I board sustained an appeal by the neighborhood group to preserve the church, which was built in 1848-49 by Patrick Charles Keely, the most prolific ecclesiastical architect of that period. The building at 1123-33 Spring Garden Street is the oldest surviving example of Keely’s work. The church was consecrated by John Neumann, and Katharine Drexel was baptized there. Both became Catholic saints.

L&I’s vote last spring overturned the Historical Commission’s decision to permit the demolition of the church. Siloam appealed the L&I vote, and Common Pleas Court Judge Idee Fox requested the findings of fact and conclusions of law from the board.

In those findings, the board cited a study by the Community Design Collaborative that addressed the potential reuse of the property and “recommended that preservation and adaptative reuse of the church building be a part of Siloam’s ongoing contribution and service to the community.” But John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, told the board that Siloam’s efforts to explore adaptive reuse of the church was “inadequate.”

Regarding efforts to sell the property, the board noted that Colliers International had been engaged to handle the marketing of the sale and had said received approximately 75 inquiries regarding the property. However, “Colliers would not identify the parties who had inquired about or viewed the church,” the board wrote, and never reduced the asking price of $575,000 at any point during the listing.

The property had been marketed for six months prior to Siloam’s request for a demolition permit, though the agency’s realtors estimated that selling a church could take two years.

Gallery had testified Siloam had been unreasonable in requiring potential buyers to show they had the funds to purchase the property and the financing for their proposed redevelopment of the site. The board found Gallery’s testimony credible.

It then cited real estate professional Alex Generalis, who testified that Siloam’s realtors should have listed the property more widely, communicated with the local development community, emphasized the tax benefits of preserving the building, and reduced the asking price.

In its conclusions of law, the board found that Siloam “did not establish financial hardship” and that the Historical Commission “therefore erred in approving demolition of the church.”

An owner claiming hardship must show that sale of the property is impracticable and that other potential uses are foreclosed, but “the board finds that Siloam has not met either prong of the financial hardship test.”

Siloam did not prove it had marketed the property “broadly,” did not have the church on the market “for a sufficient length of time,” and asked an “unrealistic” price, the board said.

The board also said in its findings that it used the “standard of review” that justified its overturning of the Historical Commission’s decision. “The commission’s decision was both plainly erroneous and inconsistent with the preservation ordinance,” the board concluded.

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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