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. ••