Updated: Thursday, April 24, 2014, 1:53 PM
There are, give or take, a thousand historic churches and synagogues in Philadelphia struggling to keep their roofs intact and their doors open. So when one of these vulnerable landmarks comes up with a plan that promises not only to sustain the building, but also to expand its good works, you want to applaud first and ask questions later. But the questions just can't wait at St. Rita of Cascia.
A neoclassical church that presides with stately grace over South Broad Street just below Washington Avenue, St. Rita's has advantages other congregations can only dream about. Besides being the parish church for the bustling upper part of South Philadelphia, it also houses an important Catholic shrine with a worldwide following.
St. Rita, born in Umbria in the 14th century, is the patron saint of what we would today call "conflict resolution." Given the state of the world, her philosophy of peacemaking is a hot topic and attracts busloads of pilgrims to Broad and Ellsworth. Enough people wander in daily that the church holds two Masses a day - three on Wednesdays - even though its membership is now down to only 600 families.
The shrine, meanwhile, has become a reliable moneymaker for the church. The board thinks it could bring in even more revenue if there were space for conferences, workshops, and banquets. After struggling for years to raise money to house its conflict-resolution programs, St. Rita's presented its plan to the Zoning Board on April 9.
That proposal is now itself a source of conflict in the neighborhood.
As admirable as St. Rita's mission is, the design is a hard slap at South Broad and the recovering neighborhoods on either side of the boulevard - and at the church's own elegant limestone facade, which recalls the neighborhood churches of Rome. The building site is a prime corner on Philadelphia's grandest street, with a subway stop at its doorstep, yet St. Rita's proposed conference center looks like another unfortunate Broad Street convenience store.
You might not get the full effect looking at the imperfect image accompanying this column. St. Rita's pastor, the Rev. Joseph Genito, refused to release an official rendering, even after it was presented publicly at the zoning hearing. I obtained this one from the Passyunk Post, a website that covers South Philadelphia. Its correspondent was clever enough to snap a photo of the drawing during St. Rita's presentation to the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association, which opposes the design.
Withholding such renderings is, alarmingly, becoming a common strategy for Philadelphia institutions that want to limit open discussion of their projects. That many of them are nonprofits, which pay no property taxes and expect special treatment because of their missions, only makes the practice worse. We saw the same tactic with Children's Hospital, which didn't release a street-level view of its problematic Schuylkill garage at South Street until the eleventh hour.
The St. Rita's rendering by Robert W. McCauley at Strada Architecture (formerly UJMN) shows a low, shedlike building with a slightly peaked roof. The prefabricated, $2.5 million structure looks like it's one step up from a tent, but it would be permanent.
Father Genito, a gentle and patient man who spent 90 minutes talking to me about the project, concedes the design is not ideal, but justifies it by saying it is all that St. Rita's can afford. "Our need for a building is greater than what neighbors think about the look of the building," he argued.
Certainly, its needs are great. Like so many churches, St. Rita's is desperate to reach out beyond its parish boundaries, which stretch from South to Reed, between 13th and 17th. In the 1920s, its pastors performed a thousand baptisms a year. Today it's more like 20. That big old building, which seats 800, sucks up money. The parish has gone into debt maintaining its bright rose-and-gold interior. It just spent $500,000 to repair a crumbling wall.
The problem is that looks are only a small part of what's wrong with the design. The real issue is land use.
South Broad, once a regal progression of civic buildings and gracious townhouses, has taken a battering from suburban-minded designs, fast-food restaurants, check-cashing shops, and the like.
But with the repopulation of adjacent neighborhoods like Newbold and East Passyunk, the street cries out for more density, not less. It's worth noting that the conference center site once supported a school and multiple townhouses. The parish would downgrade that to one little building and a 20-car surface parking lot.
It may not sound like a big deal, but the conversion of an old bar across from St. Rita's, Boot & Saddle, into a hip music venue has made Broad and Ellsworth a popular destination. If developer Bart Blatstein pulls off a planned, multilevel urban shopping mall at the northeast corner of Washington Avenue, St. Rita's will be at the center of the action.
There is a way, of course, for the parish to get what it needs to support the church without turning the block into a suburban strip.
The parish could partner with a developer to build a larger structure incorporating the conference center. St. Rita's, which is still $1 million short, would get a subsidy for the project. A mixed-use building that included affordable or senior housing would even help cushion the area against the coming gentrification. A midrise apartment building is much more in the spirit of South Broad and would anchor both the corner and the community, now a melting pot of many ethnicities.
City planners have been trying to nudge St. Rita's to consider such a collaboration. At their request, the Zoning Board postponed a decision on St. Rita's variance. Chief planner Gary Jastrzab said he was working to match up St. Rita's with potential partners and grants. Although Father Genito said the parish had so far failed to find a suitable developer, he would be open to cooperation.
Think of it this way: A collaborative project between St. Rita's and a developer wouldn't just resolve the disagreement over the site; it would build a conference center that was a living symbol of conflict resolution.
Read full story: Changing Skyline: St. Rita's stirs up conflict on a S. Phila. corner