What lies ahead at St. Boniface?

St. Bon­iface church, at Han­cock and Dia­mond streets, has been va­cant since 2006. A plan to turn the site in­to a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar hous­ing com­plex could be im­pacted by a zon­ing change pro­posed by City Coun­cil­wo­man Maria Quiñones-Sánchez (D-7th dist.).

Tem­pers flared last week when mem­bers of the Nor­ris Square Civic As­so­ci­ation and res­id­ents of the Nor­ris Square neigh­bor­hood, in the vi­cin­ity of Dia­mond and Han­cock streets, voiced their op­pos­i­tion to a zon­ing change that could af­fect a pos­sible hous­ing pro­ject on the former site of St. Bon­iface Church.

The April 9 meet­ing, or­gan­ized by City Coun­cil­wo­man Maria Quiñones-Sánchez (D-7th dist.), was in­ten­ded to de­tail her pro­pos­al for zon­ing changes. Com­ments dur­ing the rather charged ses­sion shif­ted con­tinu­ously between Eng­lish and Span­ish, and at times there was a mix of both, as fiery ex­changes weighed in on zon­ing changes that could im­pact the area where the 140-year-old church once stood.

The de­bates arose as Quiñones-Sánchez — who lives in the neigh­bor­hood — de­tailed her pro­pos­al to have all R-10 zoned prop­er­ties in a few-block ra­di­us changed to R-10A.  Cur­rently, R-10 prop­er­ties can be con­ver­ted to multi-fam­ily units by right.

A zon­ing change to R-10A, as de­tailed by Quiñones-Sánchez, would put tight­er re­stric­tions on prop­erty own­ers and re­quire a hear­ing be­fore a single-fam­ily home could be con­ver­ted to a multi-fam­ily unit.

What seemed to make last week’s meet­ing so con­tro­ver­sial was that the small area where the po­ten­tial changes would take place — an area sand­wiched between York Street, Berks Street, Front Street and Second Street — is the site of the former St. Bon­iface com­plex.

The St. Bon­iface par­ish was closed in 2006.

The Nor­ris Square Civic As­so­ci­ation pur­chased the prop­erty for just over $640,000 in 2008 and has worked with the com­munity to pro­pose a res­id­en­tial hous­ing com­plex of 15 af­ford­able units where the church once stood.

The changes Quiñones-Sánchez is hop­ing to put in place could stall the NSCA plan and cost the neigh­bor­hood group mil­lions of dol­lars in fed­er­al fund­ing ear­marked for the pro­posed pro­ject.

The coun­cil­wo­man countered that without her change to zon­ing, any of those 15 planned hous­ing units could be con­ver­ted to multi-apart­ment build­ings, with little re­stric­tion or pro­tec­tion for the com­munity.

Wor­ried about the pos­sible loss of fed­er­al funds, one res­id­ent an­grily ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment with Quiñones-Sánchez’s lead­er­ship. He was even es­cor­ted out of the meet­ing by Phil­adelphia po­lice of­ficers. 

Mar­tin Gregor­ski and Dav­id Fecteau, of the Phil­adelphia City Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, were on hand to de­tail the coun­cil­wo­man’s pro­pos­al.

“The coun­cil­wo­man asked us to take a look at the area be­cause there have been a num­ber of multi-fam­ily con­ver­sions or apart­ments put in as a mat­ter of right. (They just) ap­ply for an apart­ment per­mit and put apart­ments in,” Gregor­ski said.

He ex­plained what the pro­posed zon­ing change would mean for cur­rent apart­ments in the area.

“The R-10A per­mits single-fam­ily homes only. If you have per­mits for an apart­ment build­ing in your unit — it stays,” he said. ldquo;It’s grand­fathered in. It’s not something that be­comes il­leg­al.”

If the coun­cil­wo­man’s bill is passed, he said, a homeown­er want­ing to turn a single-fam­ily home in­to an apart­ment com­plex would need a vari­ance from the city Zon­ing Board of Ad­just­ment.

But, Gregor­ski stressed that the com­munity should ad­opt the coun­cil­wo­man’s changes soon, be­cause there are sweep­ing changes on the way when the city’s re­vised and up­dated zon­ing code takes ef­fect in Au­gust.

“It is im­port­ant to get this in now, be­cause, come Au­gust, when the new zon­ing code comes in­to ef­fect, R-10 prop­er­ties are per­mit­ted four units as a mat­ter of right. So, nor­mally you would see an apart­ment each floor, but this would even per­mit more than that,” said Gregor­ski.

He thinks chan­ging the zon­ing to R-10A will be­ne­fit the com­munity.

“There are a couple (be­ne­fits). One is you’re catch­ing a prob­lem be­fore it’s really taken hold. South Philly has loads of park­ing prob­lems. Those park­ing prob­lems are in part be­cause they got con­ver­ted to, you know, three and four fam­ily units,” said Gregor­ski. ldquo;Every­body has a car, you only have six­teen-feet in front. (It’s like) you have three houses with just one house worth of (park­ing for the) cars. So, if you come in now, you can catch a lot of that be­fore it gets star­ted.”

He echoed the com­plaints of a wo­man at the meet­ing who said there are too many un­sa­vory land­lords in the area. The con­cern is that these prop­erty own­ers of­ten only partly ren­ov­ate homes — es­pe­cially homes they are plan­ning to con­vert to apart­ments that cur­rently can be done by right —and thus can cause many prob­lems for neigh­bors, in­clud­ing leav­ing the block a mess and mak­ing the neigh­bor­hood un­safe for chil­dren.

“Secondly, like the one lady was say­ing, no one has to ask to do any­thing. So if I want to come in and make a three-fam­ily dwell­ing now, I can do it as a mat­ter of right. I come in with my guys, get my per­mits and off I go,” Gregor­ski said. “When this passes, it will re­quire you to go to the zon­ing board. It’s not like a ‘no.’ It’s so you have to go through this pro­cess. So every­body is go­ing to have to know about it. There is a bal­ance.

There is bal­ance between in­di­vidu­al prop­erty rights and there is a bal­ance of what the com­munity de­sires, too. And it’s find­ing that bal­ance.”

Fecteau noted oth­er pos­sible be­ne­fits of the planned zon­ing change.

“If there is any­one who is us­ing their prop­erty il­leg­ally —let’s say they have il­leg­al room­ing units — this is go­ing to catch it,” said Fecteau. “Ob­vi­ously you want every­one to be leg­al.”

Just the same, many at the meet­ing found the pro­pos­al un­wel­come be­cause of the pos­sib­il­ity it could stall or even sink the planned pro­ject at St. Bon­iface.  Some res­id­ents wor­ried that delays would cost the neigh­bor­hood key be­ne­fits — like $5.5 mil­lion in fed­er­al funds for the af­ford­able-hous­ing plan, a new school, new com­puter lab, new com­munity cen­ter, new com­munity busi­ness of­fices and more for the pro­ject the NSCA has pro­posed.

Some also said they don’t know why the coun­cil­wo­man is pro­pos­ing that they vote on something that could im­pact a plan that already has been agreed upon by the com­munity after many meet­ings and years of work.

“As someone who is elec­ted,” Quiñones-Sánchez said, “I have been as sup­port­ive as I pos­sibly can for the re­devel­op­ment of the cam­pus, go­ing back to the sale of the Kens­ing­ton High School, so that the money could be util­ized for the St. Bon­iface cam­pus,” said the coun­cil­wo­man, re­fer­ring to the his­tory of the pro­ject.

Not­ing that some of the funds for the St. Bon­iface pro­ject were tax­pay­er dol­lars, Quiñones-Sánchez said that com­munity mem­bers have a right to de­cide where their tax dol­lars go.

“Every­body here got a blue slip if you live in the tar­geted area. And if in fact all of you agree to this stuff or dis­agree to this stuff, this is demo­cracy, you put it here,” she said, talk­ing about vot­ing slips that were passed around the room. “I can as­sure you that I got num­bers and num­bers of these turned in to me. I don’t want to lose any money for Nor­ris Square. But we also have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to make sure that the money is lever­aged and that we are spend­ing it wisely.”

She then ref­er­enced the NSCA and said the or­gan­iz­a­tion had an op­por­tun­ity to use the money to pur­chase oth­er run­down prop­er­ties in the area and fix them — an idea that could have seen many loc­al prop­er­ties re­vital­ized.

But, in­stead, the group chose to fo­cus on St. Bon­iface — which would have cost more than $7 mil­lion to re­store, she said.

It was razed to make way for the NSCA’s planned $10 mil­lion hous­ing pro­ject.

After much back-and-forth fin­ger-point­ing and bick­er­ing, noth­ing was settled by the end of the meet­ing.

The coun­cil­wo­man plans to meet again in two weeks and have the plan­ning com­mis­sion work on a fact sheet that out­lines how the zon­ing change could im­pact the pro­ject planned at the former grounds of St. Bon­iface.

On Tues­day, the pro­posed zon­ing change was presen­ted to the City Plan­ning Com­mis­sion. The com­mis­sion re­com­men­ded ap­prov­al of Quiñones-Sánchez’s pro­posed change by a vote of five to two. ••

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