Earlier this week the Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA) finally issued its decision on the future of the closed St. Laurentius Catholic Church in Fishtown. The almost 150-year-old structure has been at the center of a raging controversy since the Archdiocese announced plans for its demolition in 2015.
The ZBA’s ruling advances a plan that would transform the interior of the church into a 23-unit apartment complex. But some longtime residents of Fishtown have bitterly contested the conversion. Venise Whitaker of the Faithful Laurentians, the principal opponents of the development, says that they are in the process of retaining a lawyer to appeal the decision.
At a September meeting two votes were held by Fishtown Neighbors Association, one for the larger community—which voted 74-to73 against the project—and one by those who live within 500 feet of St. Laurentius, who voted 94-to-34 against it.
While the Faithful Laurentians wish to see the building preserved, they still want it to be a site of worship again or another community use that retains the interior intact. If the apartment conversion plan is enacted, they argue that the beloved community landmark will be privatized. But historic preservationists believe the conversion plan is re only way to save the building, which the Archdiocese deconsecrated in October of 2014 but the Philadelphia Historical Commission designated as historic in 2015.
The case first came before the ZBA on November 1. While couple dozen anti-development protesters arrived to express their displeasure, the developer, Leo Voloshin, had more institutional support.
“We presented our plan to the Zoning Board, and the Planning and Historical commissions came out in support of our project because they believe only way that the building will be preserved,” says Voloshin. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia also supported the project proposal.
The St. Laurentius property is zoned RSA-5, a residential zoning type that fits with the surrounding blocks of densely packed rowhouses. Religious properties are given base zoning that is in keeping with the predominant zoning class of the surrounding block. The central aspect of the zoning refusal is that Voloshin and his partners want to build multi-family, which is not allowed by the current zoning.
The board decided to hold off on a ruling on November 1. But Voloshin was alerted to his victory via post on November 14. There is now a 30-day appeal window.
Whitaker says the Faithful Laurentians plan to act in that window. They are in talks with Hal Schirmer, a local lawyer focused on zoning and land use.
“When it comes down to it, the church matters but also our vote that matters,” says Whitaker. “We try to encourage people to come out and be part of the community. Almost 300 people came out to vote and the ZBA pretty much said nope that didn’t matter. It really got to me that the ZBA said your vote doesn’t matter.”
The ZBA often takes community consideration like the September vote into consideration, but such votes are not binding.