Manayunk in uproar over St. Mary's development

Irene Madrak (left), executive director of North Light Community Center in Manayunk, and Kevin Smith, president of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, stand in the parking lot of St. Mary of the Assumption Church March 20, 2017. The community center rents spaces in the parking but that is at risk because a developer has bought the parking lot and plans to put high-density apartments on the land. Neighbors are upset. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Not quite a year ago, Alison Lanz moved with her husband to Carson Street in Manayunk, near the now-closed  St. Mary of the Assumption Church. They fell for the neighborhood's sense of community and the narrow, steep streets that made them feel they were living in a quaint European hillside town.

Now a plan to build 100 apartments on the sprawling grounds of St. Mary’s  has left Lanz and many of her neighbors upset.

She was among 170 people who filled the gymnasium of the North Light Community Center one night last week to complain to city officials and the developer about how the project would worsen long-standing problems of congestion and parking on the neighborhood's narrow, one-way streets.  

“It’s horrible,” Lanz, 29, said of the plans that Jack Bienenfeld and his company  have drawn up.  “The entire neighborhood is completely against this.” 

Residents who talked of their families living in Manayunk for six generations worried that the proposal would destroy the neighborhood's tight-knit character.  Others said apartments would be filled with college students who won’t contribute to the community because they would be short-term residents.

Bienenfeld  told them that the apartments won’t be rented to students.

Traffic is already “insane” without new apartments in the tightly packed neighborhood, Lanz said.  “If you try and leave our house past 7 in the morning, it takes close to a half hour to get to [Interstate] 76 and I can see 76 from our front door.”

The couple expected there would be development on the church parking lot -- St. Mary's closed in 2015 --  but they pictured single-family homes, as the current zoning allows. Not  several dozen apartments. 

“We don’t understand how anybody in their right minds would allow apartments to go through,” she said.

The St. Mary's project is a complicated one involving a rezoning plan  that residents are questioning because it allows Bienenfeld to bypass the normal variance process. Instead, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. has introduced an ordinance to change the zoning to allow multifamily units. 

And, not the least of the issues is the possible loss of parking for  North Light Community Center, at 175 Green Lane, which has served  Manayunk and Roxborough  for more than 80 years.

 "North Light is the lifeblood of this community," said resident Bruce Hoffman. The center sees young children and senior citizens who come to its food pantry two days a week.  Edward Jones, 93, a retired soap factory worker, said he couldn't pick up the food he gets at the center without off-street parking.

Bienenfeld had promised to give North Light 10 parking spaces, said Irene Madrak, North Light's executive director, but there's no guarantee they'd be near the center.

 For now, she said, the church is allowing the center to use the parking lot for  its two vans – used to pick up children for its after-school program and to pick up food and supplies for its food pantry program.  But the neighbors who used to rent parking spaces from the church may no longer park there. Signs warn that any cars parked will be towed.

Neighbors sharply questioned Jones about his ordinance to change the zoning. Residents voted 145 to 6 to oppose rezoning the 17 parcels to multifamily zoning.  The neighbors' vote is only advisory. Kevin Smith, Manayunk Neighborhood Council president,  said the plans will go before the city planning commission before being considered by City Council.

Joshua M. Cohen,  Councilman Jones' deputy chief of staff, said he, the councilman and Streets Department staff recently drove through the area to see the  traffic conditions. 

The neighbors made sure Jones could see signs in homeowners' windows  that read: “Councilman Jones! No to Secret Deals. No to Spot Zoning. Homes not Apartments.”

For years, Manayunk  was a working-class, industrial community, filled with factories  built there because of the proximity to the Manayunk Canal and  the Schuylkill.   Over the last quarter century, the area has gentrified, with young professionals and college students moving there.

 “We want some real planning that looks at the reality of the neighborhood,  how the neighborhood functions and how we can make it function better, not worse,” said Smith.

Like many people who saw the renderings of  the apartments,  Michael Donahue, a board member of North Light, said it was a beautiful project.

 "It's a lovely development. It just doesn't fit in that area," Donahue said. "It's not  in the best interests of the community."

Residents said they were somewhat pleased by one outcome of Wednesday's three-hour meeting: 

 A pledge from Councilman Jones that unless the developer provides “dedicated parking space” for  North Light, "It’s a dead deal.”

In the meantime,  Lanz is thinking she and her husband may leave the area.

 “To be honest, we were thinking of starting a family here, but now with this project, we probably won’t have kids here. We’ll  probably move out of Manayunk.”

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