Another reprieve for landmark church on Spring Garden
The imperiled Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street received another reprieve Tuesday afternoon, but the ultimate threat of demolition seemed to sharpen after a hearing before the city's Licenses and Inspection Review Board.
The five-member board kept in place its ruling that froze the demolition permit of the historic church where St. Katharine Drexel was baptized and St. John Neumann administered confirmations.
The board then sent the case to the Historical Commission for its opinion on issues raised Tuesday. The L&I board asked for the opinion within a day of Friday's commission meeting, but said it would retain jurisdiction of the case.
Although it was a small procedural victory for the Callowhill-area neighbors trying to save the landmark brownstone and copper-spired church - built in 1849 and designed by Patrick Keeley - they did not receive the full remand to the commission that they were seeking.
Attorney Samuel Stretton, representing the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, wants the commission to rule again on the issue of hardship - the justification for the demolition permit issued to the property's previous owners, Siloam, a nonprofit HIV/AIDS center.
Stretton said the new owner, developers John Wei and Mika He, should have to prove their own hardship case. "Does it run with the land?" he said. "I suggest that would be very unfair."
But Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, said after the hearing that the commission's permit was not limited to the previous owners, who secured it.
The hardship ruling, he said, was based on the viability and potential for adaptive reuse of the property itself, not on the financial situation of its owners or its current marketability.
Farnham also said he was unsure whether the commission could consider the matter at Friday's hearing without proper public notice. Its agenda has already been published, he said.
Wei and He purchased the property in July through their investment firm for $1.12 million and then had the demolition permit amended to change ownership.
Although trying informally to market the property at a sale price of $2.1 million, they say the church is a safety hazard and in danger of collapse.
The couple's attorney, Carl Primavera, said that if the neighborhood association pursues the case in Commonwealth Court - where a current ruling upholds the demolition permit - it should have to post a bond to cover damage should the building collapse.
"If someone could save this beautiful building, they would have," Primavera said. "There's got to be respect for people walking with baby carriages in front of this building who may not have the appreciation for the historic [significance], but have a right to walk without fear of a brick coming down."
Stretton said he was hoping for a full hardship hearing. "I can prove there's no hardship," he said. He has argued that it would cost $150,000 to stabilize the building; the owners say it would be millions.
Andrew Ross, the city's attorney, argued before the L&I bard that the demolition permit should transfer to its new owners.
In addition to yellow demolition stickers, the church has a For Sale sign on its handsome, if graffiti-scarred, facade. (A neighbor attending the hearing shouted that it had trash in front of it as well.)
Michael Barbash, who is marketing the property for Colliers, said, "There's no buyers I'm aware of that are real. It's a very difficult proposition to undertake and stabilize."
Barbash said Wei's plan was to renovate the next-door rectory and the convent into housing, a plan he believed could proceed only if the church were demolished.
Wei and He arrived before the hearing looking stricken and did not attend the hearing itself. In the hallway, Wei said he was concerned about the liability of leaving the building standing: "If I cannot demolish, it's the safety. Who wants to take on the liability?"
Contact Amy S. Rosenberg
at 215-854-2681 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.