St. Bridget School property’s future will be the focus of Monday meeting in East Falls

 Community efforts to keep St. Bridget School open failed last year; now, talk turns to the building's future. (NewsWorks file art)

Community efforts to keep St. Bridget School open failed last year; now, talk turns to the building's future. (NewsWorks file art)

Neighbors, residents and parish leaders will begin to address the fate of a shuttered East Falls parish school building next week.

At Monday’s meeting of the East Falls Community Council, a panel discussion and open forum will address future uses of the St. Bridget School’s building which closed in 2012 after a prolonged and public series of protests and debates about the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s decision.

In July, parish leaders announced that an “Agreement of Sale” was signed with a developer to purchase the two Stanton Street buildings for development into apartments. This purchase would also include a small parking lot on Stanton Street.

Rev. Joseph Devlin, pastor of St. Bridget Parish, said at the time that proceeds from the sale will be used to repay the parish’s debt to the Archdiocese — estimated by the priest to be approximately $500,000 — which was accrued as a result of St. Bridget School operations.

“When the sale is finalized,” wrote Devlin, “St. Bridget’s debt to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will be paid off and the net proceeds will be available to St. Bridget parish to provide a cash reserve for any major repairs and projects.”

According to St. Bridget staff, the zoning process is expected to take at least 6 months, so a final sale would is not anticipated until 2014.

Community engagement

“We want to make sure there is a thorough and open discussion that involves the whole community,” said Bill Epstein, chairperson of the EFCC’s Zoning and Land Use Committee

Scheduled to speak in a panel discussion are John Grady from St. Bridget’s finance committee, realtor Jake Markovitz and East Falls Business Association President Julie Camburn.

Markovitz, a realtor for Elfant-Wissahickon and lifelong East Falls resident, said he will answer real estate-related questions. Noting that few details are public regarding the project, he said he believes a condominium conversion of the site — especially in conjunction with nearby development by Onion Flats — would be good for the overall community.

Camburn, who manages NewsWorks content partner The Fallser, said she will be present not as a leader of the EFBA, but as an independent business owner.

“I feel that business owners and residents want to weigh in on some fashion, and I want to get the word out to them,” she said.

Sean Stevens, a Stanton Street resident who led many of the St. Bridget School protests in 2012, will also be there.

Recognizing the parish’s financial situation, and that an occupied building could be of benefit to the neighborhood, Stevens expressed optimism for the project.

“The neighbors take is that we’re interested in any project done by someone with a good reputation and with quality construction,” he said.

Charter-school proposal

Last year, a proposal was floated to transform the school buildings, built in two phases in 1888 and 1949, into a charter school.

In 2012, Christina Alvarez eyed the vacant St. Bridget School site for her charter-school concept, known as Design-Lab Schools. She described the building as “absolutely ideal” for her project.

Devlin acknowledged at the time that he had spoken with Alvarez, who introduced herself and her project to the parish leader. However, the project stalled in the following months.

Alvarez said on Thursday that the Philadelphia School District only accepted charter proposals last year from charter operators with several years of operations.

As a result, she turned her focus to Delaware, securing approval for a charter high school in Wilmington earlier this year, but hopes to try East Falls once again in the future.

“When Philadelphia is ready to rock and roll, we’ll come back,” Alvarez said.

Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation, indicated support for the Design-Lab last year, believing that the vacant St. Bridget School site would lend itself well to another educational organization.

Asked about her stance on the current proposal, Snyder said that the EFDC is refraining from taking a position pending the release of project specifics.

Residents, alumni remain concerned

While many of the details remain to be seen, residents first voiced concerns related to usage, parking and traffic at a meeting of the EFCC in June.

At the same time, an alternative usage of the site was also broached by resident and activist Christina Spino.

Spino, who spearheaded closure protests last year, announced in June the formation of the St. Bridget Restoration Fund, a non-profit organization aiming to open a private Catholic School under the name of St. Bridget at the site of the former parish school.

Spino expressed dismay over the prospects of the sale both as a resident and a parishioner.

“Other Catholic parishes sold [or] leased their school properties, and their parishes were still closed even though some of these parishes had no debt,” she wrote in The Fallser. “We have no guarantee as to what the money of the sale will be earmarked for, and this will not sustain interest for new parish members in the future.”

Devlin responded to these concerns in July, stating that “the Archbishop has repeatedly made it crystal clear that a parish community’s future is in jeopardy when it cannot satisfy all of its financial obligations.”

As a result, Devlin urged parishioners not to support the St. Bridget Restoration fund.

“Doing so, you are inadvertently putting the parish’s future in jeopardy,” he maintained.

While questioning the impact of the sale on the greater finances of the Archdiocese, Spino observed that the ultimate decision for zoning approval could be made by a broader power.

“It will be left up to the community to decide what is best,” she said.

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