Stay of Demolition for Church of the Assumption

Barring some Act of God, the Church of the Assumption will live to see 2013.

At a hearing Tuesday, the very day a demolition permit went into effect for the historic church, the L&I Review Board unanimously approved a temporary stay of demolition. The board voted hear an appeal of the demolition permit in early January.

In late November a demolition contractor pulled permits to raze the historic church, and posted its Spring Garden Street doors with orange Notice of Demolition stickers. In the intervening days neighbors scrambled to hold off the wrecking crews through two separate appeals processes.

On Friday an appeal in Commonwealth Court of the Historical Commission’s hardship finding (upheld by the Court of Common Pleas in October) was rejected because the property’s new owner John Wei was not named in the appeal. (This appeal will need to be revised, naming Wei, in order to proceed.) Neighbors also appealed to the L&I Review Board to stay the demolition until the Commonwealth Court appeal is heard.

Tuesday’s hearing before the L&I Review Board was a prelude to a more in-depth proceeding, which is scheduled for January 8, 2013 at 3pm. At the next hearing the L&I Review Board will weigh whether or not the Historical Commission’s finding of financial hardship back in 2010 travels with the property – as the City contends – or if that finding is no longer valid because that the property has changed ownership.

Attorney Sam Stretton, representing Callowhill neighbors appealing the demolition permit, argued that the financial hardship no longer exists because Siloam (not the new owner John Wei) appealed to the Historical Commission for financial hardship back in 2010 and because Siloam Inc. was ultimately able to find a buyer for the property. Stretton suggested that the case should be remanded all the way back to the Historical Commission for a new hardship hearing.

Andrew Ross, an attorney with the City’s Law Department, called the ownership issue a red herring. Hardship, Ross contended, is not unique to the owner, it is a condition of the property. It is the City’s legal opinion, therefore, that the demolition permits were obtained properly because the Historical Commission’s earlier hardship decision runs with the land.

Owner/developer John Wei, also appeared before the board with his wife, Mika He, and business associate, Wing Luk. Wei repeatedly expressed concerns about the building’s condition and his liability should anything unfortunate occur during the stay of demolition (as well as the cost to fully repair the church), echoing comments he made to PlanPhilly over the weekend.

Prior to the meeting Wei said that they initially hoped to redevelop the other buildings – a school, rectory, and convent – for residential and/or commercial uses and leave the church aside for the time being. The didn’t want to demolish the church, but they did not have specific redevelopment plans for it in mind. But Wei said he was not able to proceed with work on the other buildings without clearing the existing code violations on the church.

“The city gives two options,” Wei explained to the board. “One, you demo. Two, you fix.”

Despite Wei’s concerns, the board voted to hold a full hearing on the demolition permit issue at the earliest date available, January 8.

After the preliminary hearing Sarah McEneaney, Callowhill Neighborhood Association president, said she was “very happy” with the temporary stay of demolition, and hoped to continue conversations with John Wei about different alternatives that might lead to the church’s long-term preservation.

“We know Mika and John from the neighborhood and we want to work with them,” she said.

McEneaney also hinted that she has heard from someone local (though she wouldn’t specify) who is interested in buying the church building. During the hearing Stretton also alluded to two people interested in purchasing the property.

But Mika He said she doubts that there is another serious buyer. “If there was another buyer interested they would have bought it from Siloam,” she said. But, she added, if it is possible to sell the church to another party, but retain the other buildings from the Assumption complex, they are open to discussion.

They would sell, Luk added, “for a reasonable price.”

Luk then flashed a card someone handed to him with two names written on the back: Eric Blumenfeld and Avram Hornick. Both developers are invested in this area of the city, and it’s not beyond reason to think that one of them could (possibly, hopefully) find an interesting redevelopment project in this beautiful, albeit challenged, historic church.

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