Potential conversion of St. Bridget School into apartments gets mixed reaction in East Falls

To mixed reaction, an East Falls Catholic Church announced details regarding the potential sale of its school former building on Monday night.

Representatives from St. Bridget Parish announced that two buildings once comprising the former parish elementary school are under contract for sale to developer Gary Jonas of HOW Properties.

The building will likely be converted into an unknown number of primarily single-bedroom apartments.

John Grady, an East Falls resident and member of St. Bridget’s finance committee, reported at the meeting of the East Falls Community Council that the sale price of the property is $1.2 million.

This includes the two vacant Stanton Street buildings — estimated at 30,000 square feet — and a contiguous parking lot.

Indicating that the sale is not finalized, Grady said the developer is currently performing his 90-day period of due-diligence.

Debt considerations

As detailed by NewsWorks, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced early last year that St. Bridget Elementary School was to close.

The archdiocese cited low enrollment figures and an estimated $470,000 in debt incurred by the parish in subsidizing the school’s operations.

The school closed in June after a lengthy and emotional process of ultimately unsuccessful appeals and protests to prevent its shuttering.

Plans for a regional school merging students from St. Bridget and Holy Family Elementary School in Manayunk were scuttled shortly thereafter due to low enrollment figures.

The debt is highly troubling to parish leaders.

Seeking parishioners’ support in July, Rev. Joseph Devlin wrote that the Archdiocese has “repeatedly made it crystal clear” that a parish is in “jeopardy” when it cannot satisfy all of its financial obligations.

When the sale is finalized, Devlin noted that St. Bridget’s debt to the Archdiocese would be satisfied, and the net proceeds will be available to the parish to provide a cash reserve for repairs and capital projects. Outside of school-related debt, parish financials are said to be in the black.

“The parish finance council has been very focused on creating a plan to make sure that the parish function independently of the Archdiocese financially and is sustainable in the long term as a thriving parish community,” said Grady on Monday night.

Marketing the site and beyond

Starting last September, a broker was retained and the buildings were “extensively” marketed to find a tenant who would lease the buildings and pay rent to the parish.

Despite approaching several institutions, including local universities, no offers were forthcoming. Potential charter-school operators were also courted.

Earlier this year, parish leaders decided to market the property for sale. While Grady noted that a handful of developers signaled interest, only one — Jonas — stepped up with an offer.

In an interview, Jonas confirmed on Tuesday that he intends to convert the former classrooms to apartments, but did not have a final count.

Plans are currently being sketched for the property, which Grady estimated as once housing approximately 30 classrooms. After plans are rendered, Jonas will meet with the community for input and direction.

Responding to a concern raised at Monday’s meeting, Jonas said he has no intention of demolishing the buildings.

“I left the meeting understanding that it’s a hot-button topic,” said Jonas, “but hopefully we can do something that everyone can get on board with.”

Parking concerns again raised

Paramount on most people’s minds on Monday night was the potential impact of parking.

While Jonas agreed that the 18 to 20 spaces envisioned for the parking lot on Stanton Street would likely fall short of the total number of apartments at the site, he was confident that his team would be able to approach a one-to-one parking ratio.

Grady explained that the church’s lot on Midvale Avenue would not be available, as parking is needed for the church’s daily operations.

Despite these concerns, panelists at the meeting lent their support to the project and the developer.

Neighborhood reactions

East Falls resident Cesira Ruggiero, a planner and architect with Ritter and Plante, refrained from providing a specific endorsement, but said that HOW Properties maintains a positive reputation in the development community.

Jacob Markovitz, an East Falls resident and realtor with Elfant-Wissahickon, observed that from a real-estate perspective, the school buildings are not easy properties to sell.

He suggested that it would be an opportunity for the community and “a mistake” to deter the project because of issues like parking.

“There’s a buyer on the table, and they’re willing to work with the community in some capacity,” said Markovitz. “It’s not an opportunity that I would pass along on for fear of not having a place to park.”

Zoning and future meetings

Parish leaders hope for an informal meeting between Jonas and immediate neighbors.

However, in order to pursue the necessary zoning variances, a formal presentation will need to be made to both the EFCC’s zoning committee and full membership.

Jonas’ due-diligence period runs through September, and the zoning process is expected to take six to 12 months afterwards.

Grady noted that the zoning approvals need to be in place before the contract is fulfilled, upon which payment to the parish is contingent.

“[Jonas] won’t pay us the money if he can’t build the project,” said Grady.

EFCC President Barnaby Wittels emphasized that his organization will not take a position until plans are formally presented.

He said he recognized both the economic demands of the parish and the importance of having an ongoing and vigorous dialogue among residents.

“Development is something that everybody gets to talk through and that most people get to agree to,” said Wittels. “The worst thing you can do for a neighborhood is a force a use on that neighborhood that the neighbors are going to resist with great emotion.”

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