Update: Councilwoman Sánchez suggests alternate plans for St. Boniface

Update: Councilwoman Sánchez’s bill rezoning the St. Boniface site and other parcels in Norris Square will be the subject of a Rules Committee hearing in Room 400 of City Hall tomorrow, Wednesday, May 16, at 10 a.m. 

At the corner of Hancock and Diamond streets, on the Norris Square site where the recently demolished church of St. Boniface used to sit, backhoes and cranes push dirt and clear away rubble. But for all their noise and dust, it’s not clear entirely clear what they’re doing.

Norris Square Civic Association, which owns the property and has its headquarters across the park, is moving forward with a plan to turn the corner lot into 15 limited-equity housing units. But Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, whose personal headquarters are also across the park, introduced legislation into City Council in March which would change the zoning designation of the parcel—along with hundreds of other parcels surrounding it—from multi-family to single-family, and block the project from going forward as planned.

After a contentious community meeting in which the Councilwoman and NSCA battled for the support of the Norris Square community (both claimed victory), and another contentious meeting at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Sánchez’s bill got a favorable recommendation from the Commission. The bill will be subject to a Rules Committee hearing in City Council on May 16th.

In the meantime, the fate of both the St. Boniface site and the public money allocated to its redevelopment remain uncertain.

NSCA has planned to use $5 million of Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP2) money to match an equal amount of Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds in order to develop the co-op units and make other improvements to the site.

According to a summary of NSP2 grantee projects issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the stimulus funds, Norris Square Civic Association received the money as part of a grant intended to “address foreclosure and abandonment in the housing market and to create affordable housing for Latino communities.”

Councilwoman Sánchez believes that NSCA’s plan for St. Boniface is a misuse of that government money.

“I am asking [NSCA] the questions I ask of every CDC when we’re doing these projects,” Councilwoman Sánchez said. “Are we leveraging public dollars efficiently and effectively? Could we be doing other things?”

Late last month, Sánchez sent a letter to NSCA director Patricia De Carlo—as well as State Representative Curtis Thomas and representatives of the Office of Housing and Community Development and Chicanos por la Causa, the group which secured the NSP2 funds—explaining what she believes would be better uses of the money.

“It is my belief that there are higher priority sites for the spending of housing redevelopment dollars,” Sánchez wrote in the letter. “ … I have always supported the expansion of the day care and alternative school [at St. Boniface], the proposed employment training center, and the recent relocation of the NSCA offices to the site. Adding housing is both unnecessary and an over-utilization of a relatively small campus footprint.”

The letter goes on to outline a “Plan A” and a “Plan B” to replace the current plan being pursued by NSCA. The first Sánchez plan calls for a multi-use development at the St. Boniface site which includes no housing; the second plan allows for single-family housing and a redesign of the Boniface development plan “to reflect the character and land-use of the neighborhood around Norris Square.”

Under the first plan, according to Sánchez’s letter, the entire NSP2 grant would be redirected to “alternate sites that better fulfill the goals of the NSP program.” Sánchez attached to her letter a list of 1,700 City-owned properties which, she wrote, she “could facilitate transfer to NSCA” for the use of the NSP2 money. Sánchez also said she would help craft a plan to raise the required money to match the $5 million RACP grant that NSCA received from the State last summer.

Under the second plan, Sánchez calls for a redesign of the St. Boniface plan as part of a transparent community input process, including “meetings that are not hosted by any party with financial interest in the development.” Sánchez has repeatedly suggested that NSCA is a conflicted organization, as it acts as both the developer and the civic association on the St. Boniface project. (A provision disallowing this type of conflict was recently written into the Planning Commission’s regulations for implementing the new zoning code.) Under this plan, too, some of the NSP funds would be redirected to infill and rehab sites elsewhere in the Norris Square neighborhood.

In a recent interview with PlanPhilly, NSCA’s Pat De Carlo said she believed that Sánchez’s plans for the St. Boniface site were offered as a negotiating tactic, and that if a disinterested third party were to judge that their completion were unfeasible before the February 2013 deadline for use of the NSP2 money, Sánchez would back off and allow the original St. Boniface plan to go through.

De Carlo was unwilling to guess why Sánchez waited until after the demolition of St. Boniface began to formally oppose NSCA’s plans. Sánchez, too, declined to explain her timing.

But Sánchez did say that she would “absolutely not” support the original plan, and that she believed the NSP2 funds could easily be used for needed infill before the deadline next year.

“Although time is of the essence,” Sánchez wrote in her letter, “I believe that we still have a clear opportunity and obligation to shepherd an honest and inclusive process for vetting plans for the St. Boniface campus and for use of the $9 million meant for neighborhood stabilization.”

NSCA insists their planning process for the St. Boniface plans was honest and inclusive, and that their plan for the co-op housing was a direct result of community desire expressed at one of their annual meetings. For her part, De Carlo made it clear that the co-op housing in particular is a way of providing affordable housing for Norris Square residents while keeping out wealthy people looking to speculate on the housing market.

“We’re not interested in gentrification,” De Carlo said. “Gentrification, I define, as people who are of a certain income and thought. Their house is an investment. Their main interest in life is in growing that investment. It is not in the human quality of life. It is not in the neighborhliness. It is in the growth of their investment. So when that’s your reason for buying, then the answer is no, we’re not interested in gentrifiers.”

Councilwoman Sánchez seems intent on blocking multi-family housing at the St. Boniface site while advocating for infill and rehabilitation at other vacant sites in the neighborhood. Sánchez previously told PlanPhilly that she would contest the zoning permits NSCA pulled for the development of the St. Boniface site. Asked recently if she had done so, Sánchez said, “That’s a legal technicality that’s ongoing, and I prefer not to talk about it because it’s ongoing.”

“I hope that one of the positive things that comes out of this process is the call for more transparency,” Sánchez said. “And again, when you have a NAC, a civic, and a developer [in one organization], it’s conflicted. So I’m going to have to play a more proactive role in facilitating discussions and making sure that people get information.”

The first community meeting Sánchez held about the rezoning legislation yielded little in the way of productive discussion. Sánchez said at last month’s Planning Commission meeting that she would hold a second community meeting with the Commission aimed at addressing some community members’ concerns about the zoning change. She told PlanPhilly last week that the meeting is tentatively scheduled for Monday, May 14th.

As of Tuesday, NSCA said they hadn’t heard about that plan.

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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