After weeks of committed community activism, Port Richmond neighbors in support of senior housing at the vacant Nativity B.V.M. School gathered in Campbell Square Saturday to make their voices heard. Elected officials at the rally, though, said there’s a long road ahead if, in fact, the project ever actually happens.
More than 125 neighbors assembled in Port Richmond’s Campbell Square Saturday afternoon to show their support for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s proposal to turn the vacant Nativity B.V.M. School into a 63-unit residence for restricted-income senior citizens.
State Rep. John Taylor (R-177th dist.), City Councilman Mark Squilla (D-1st dist.) and City Councilman Bobby Henon (D-6th dist.) all spoke in support of senior housing in Port Richmond at the rally, which was led by Port Richmond on Patrol and Civic president Ken Paul.
“Why can’t we have our senior center?” Paul asked. “This is something we’re going to fight for.”
The proposal to convert the former school, at Belgrade and East Madison streets, into a senior center was conceived by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Health Care Services in 2009.
It received strong community support, and CHCS was awarded $11 million by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for the project, which has an estimated budget of $11.5 million.
Since, the needed variances for the propsal have been rejected by the state’s Commonwealth Court, after one neighbor filed an appeal of the state’s Court of Common Pleas’ decision to grant the project the variances. CHCS appealed the Commonwealth Court’s decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Dec. 27.
“Your optimism is very much needed and inspiring. Please remain vocal,” said Kimiko Doherty of CHCS to neighbors.
The rally was publicized on Facebook by Beth and Bridget Cole, who created the page “Port Richmond (Past and Present) for the Transformation of Nativity,” which has more than 800 members.
The two said that Nativity B.V.M. was the ideal place for a senior center.
“When our grandmother was alive, she had a stroke, but she wanted to stay here, in the neighborhood,” Bridget Cole said.
Their grandmother stayed in the family home in Port Richmond, but “she would have loved to be independent,” Cole continued.
During the rally, an additional 34 people signed a petition to the Supreme Court to hear the case, which previously had 844 signatures.
Despite the optimism and hope of attendees at the rally, however, elected officials that day said that legal issues surrounding the proposal make the Nativity B.V.M. senior housing project unlikely.
“This rally is great for the community. It’s a good cause,” Squilla said. “The actuality – it’s a long shot. We have to look at alternatives.”
Paul and Taylor echoed this sentiment, with Paul mentioning that the same senior housing project may need to find another neighborhood building as its location.
“I think it’s going to happen, but it’s not going to happen through the Supreme Court,” Taylor said. “Maybe our exuberance overshadowed some issues … There’s some flaws in that application [for zoning variances].”
The Supreme Court only hears cases involving previously unheard questions of state law, and it might decline to even hear the appeal.
“Even if we won at the Supreme Court, we would just have to start this whole process all over again,” Taylor said.
“The really critical issue is to maintain the building,” he pointed out.
The vacant building is showing signs of decay, and has been broken into and burglarized repeatedly, according to records of the 24th Police District.
Doris Calderwood, who attended Nativity B.V.M. School in the 1970s, came to the rally because she strongly supports the senior housing proposal.
“Old neighbors are finding it harder to hang onto their houses,” Calderwood said.
“Somebody stopped [the project] and took it into a court claiming that it’s causing problems for the neighborhood. The only thing it’s causing is for property values to go down because it’s sitting here, vacant,” she said.
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at email@example.com.