Neighbors and parishioners unite against proposed Society Hill development
About sixty neighbors and parishioners came out Tuesday evening to protest a proposed new development on a parking lot that faces the Romanesque Revival Mother Bethel AME Church (1889) in Society Hill. The church is built on a parcel that was purchased by the Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church's founder, in 1791, making it the country's oldest land continuously owned by African-Americans.
Spurred by a neighbor, Larry Spector, who lives directly adjacent to the proposed development — a four-story, six-unit apartment complex owned by Pamela Ying Jin and James Nga Kuk Li — and the church's pastor, Reverend Mark Tyler, the opponents object to the plan on the grounds that it is incompatible with the neighborhood and the historic church.
"We have no problem with the owner's right to develop the property," Spector said Tuesday night. "But let's do so in a way that better serves the neighborhood. This building is just a box; it has no pitched roof and its massing and materials don't belong."
Singing and holding photos of the proposed development and of the church, a core group gathered on the stone steps of Mother Bethel, as other neighbors and passersby gradually formed a crowd of observers.
Backed by glittering stained glass windows, speakers offered prayers, poems, and pleas — the latter specifically addressed to the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which granted its approval for the project after first debating whether it even had jurisidiction over the site, then reviewing the design itself. The project's architect is Stephan Potts of Stanev Potts.
(The Commission staff and its advisory Architectural Committee had both recommended denying the project. The developers have successfully passed other hurdles, including zoning, which is by right. Although from the drawings, it appears that the project doesn't meet minimum open space requirements — as Spector and others contend — other documentation suggests that the requisite amount has been provided.)
Reached by phone, Jonathan Farham, the commission's executive director, told PlanPhilly that "the Architectural Committee recommended denial of the initial proposal, but gave the applicants some suggestions on how to improve the project. They came back with two designs that met those recommendations and it was those revisions that the full Commission reviewed. So I don't see that as 'ignoring' the Committee."
Although yesterday's protest concentrated on the architectural compatibility with the neighborhood and the church, other concerns that have been raised range from the loss of parking to diminished light (but Spector, for example, will suffer from neither since he doesn't use the parking lot and since the side of his house which faces the site has no windows).
After asking the Commission to reconsider its decision — which will not be finalized until the developer addresses issues concerning the visibility of the rooftop HVAC equipment — Spector said, "we shouldn't be in the position of taking appeals to some higher authority," meaning the Licenses and Inspections Review Board. Farnham says that his staff has not yet seen new plans for the HVAC components under question. He suggested, however, that the opponents had 30 days from the time that the Commission staff notified the owner of the formal decision to appeal the Commission's decision.
The Commission met on August 9, and the notification went out on Sept. 20. "That thirty day period has passed and at this point, as I've notified the pastor, the Church needs to talk with the Licenses and Inspection Review Board, not this office," Farnham told PlanPhilly.
But, given the setting, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking of the highest authority of them all, as a host of other religious figures — including Rabbi Avi Winokur of nearby Society Hill Synagogue — joined in invocations to stop the development. Like many, Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of the interfaith group, POWER, whose members include 42 congregations, (including Rabbi Winokur's and Reverend Tyler's), mentioned the church's significance in American history. Not only will the builders impact the streetscape, he said, but they will have "impact on this church and its legacy of 200 years."
Reverend Tyler read a letter from City Councilman Mark Squilla — running late, but due to meet with church officials later that evening — that voiced his support of the arguments laid out by the church and Society Hill Civic Association and noted that he had the "same concerns" as far as design compatibility.
The "vigil," as organizers dubbed it, lasted about a half hour. At its conclusion, residents from nearby neighborhoods mingled with congregants on the church steps and sidewalk. Their lively conversations dipped into the vagaries of religion, development, and politics — and the intersection of all three.
"I feel very strongly about this," said Dr. Beverly Coleman, a physician who lives in Villanova and makes the commute every Sunday to worship at Mother Bethel. "I thought we were going to be marching, carrying banners! I mean, come on, what does that new building have to do with history?
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