Just another blighted building?

Port Rich­mond’s former Nativ­ity B.V.M. School has been va­cant for more than three years, and has be­come a tar­get of theft and van­dal­ism. And while a com­munity-cham­pioned plan to con­vert it to seni­or hous­ing is tied up in court, neigh­bors won­der what will come next.

St. John Neu­mann Place, at 26th and Moore streets in South Phil­adelphia, looks and feels by all ac­counts like a won­der­ful place for the city’s seni­ors to live.

With its sprawl­ing, well-lit halls, well-ap­poin­ted apart­ments and se­cure entry, it’s no sur­prise the folks who live there had only the best to say when Star vis­ited on Dec. 13.

“Oh, I just love it here,” said one wo­man as she cheer­fully showed off her spa­cious, tidy apart­ment, dec­or­ated from floor to ceil­ing with fam­ily pho­tos and knick-knacks.

“I was first on the list when this place opened,” said an­oth­er.

The fa­cil­ity boasts a com­munity room with dozens of chairs, a card table, a big-screen TV, com­pli­ment­ary magazines and books, and a full kit­chen — an ideal set­ting in which seni­ors can stay so­cial and act­ive.

Sur­roun­ded by the neigh­bor­hood’s corner stores, parks and churches, St. John Neu­mann is a quiet liv­ing place only a stone’s throw from any amen­ity its res­id­ents might need.

Why, then, don’t Port Rich­mond’s seni­ors have such a place?

At one time, it seemed sure they would get one. Now, it’s not so clear. 


On Oc­to­ber 8, 2009, John M. Wag­n­er of Cath­ol­ic Health Care Ser­vices, a branch of the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia, spoke to an aud­it­or­i­um full of neigh­bors at the former Nativ­ity B.V.M. School, at the corner of Bel­grade and East Madis­on streets on Camp­bell Square.

The school had closed in 2008. Nativ­ity B.V.M. had been one of the three Cath­ol­ic schools merged in­to what is now Our Lady of Port Rich­mond, at 3233 E. Thompson St.

Wag­n­er presen­ted CHCS’ pro­pos­al to con­vert the former school in­to res­id­en­tial hous­ing for seni­ors. As dir­ect­or of pro­ject de­vel­op­ment for CHCS, he said the pro­pos­al was met with “re­sound­ing sup­port.”

“We did ex­tens­ive [com­munity] out­reach,” he said. “We went door-to-door to the neigh­bors who would be im­pacted. The pas­tor­al coun­cil [of the still-open Nativ­ity B.V.M. Church, at 2535 E. Al­legheny Ave.] thought it was a good idea.”

So did the U.S. De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Urb­an Devleop­ment (HUD), which awar­ded CHCS $11 mil­lion for the pro­ject un­der its Sec­tion 202 Sup­port­ive Hous­ing for the Eld­erly pro­gram — CHCS was the only ap­plic­a­tion awar­ded in the city that year for the pur­poses of seni­or hous­ing.

The com­munity was in­deed in sup­port as well — 212 people signed a pe­ti­tion in fa­vor of the pro­ject at a com­munity meet­ing after the pro­pos­al’s an­nounce­ment.

Nativ­ity B.V.M.’s seni­or hous­ing would be much like St. John Neu­mann Place, a $17.5 mil­lion pro­ject that opened in March 2008. Like Nativ­ity, it was once a school, a boys’ high school that closed in 2004. Wag­n­er him­self is an alum­nus.

The Nativ­ity hous­ing would be re­served for seni­ors 62 years and older, and would con­sist of 63 one-bed­room apart­ments, each ap­prox­im­ately 520 square feet.

The build­ing would also in­clude trash and re­cyc­ling rooms on each floor, laun­dry rooms on al­tern­at­ing floors, as well as wheel­chair ac­cess­ible apart­ments and four on-site park­ing spaces.

The ex­ist­ing struc­ture, Wag­n­er said, would be main­tained, par­tic­u­larly from the ex­ter­i­or. The win­dows would be re­placed, and a small four-story ad­di­tion would be ad­ded to ac­com­mod­ate ad­di­tion­al units along Liv­ing­ston Street.

Fu­ture res­id­ents would also be in­come-qual­i­fied — in 2009, the max­im­um in­come level for one po­ten­tial ten­ant was $27,250 an­nu­ally, and $31,000 for a two-per­son house­hold. Rent and util­it­ies would be set at 30 per­cent of the res­id­ent’s monthly in­come.

The total de­vel­op­ment budget is $11.5 mil­lion.

“Seni­ors in row houses, it’s not the best hous­ing as you age in place,” Wag­n­er said. “A one-bed­room apart­ment, where you have your peers there…you have so­cial­iz­a­tion.”

He ad­ded that St. John Neu­mann Place, along with CHCS’ oth­er pro­jects in the city, have had a “tre­mend­ously sta­bil­iz­ing” ef­fect on the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood’s value, and along with do­ing the same for Port Rich­mond, the Nativ­ity B.V.M. pro­ject’s con­struc­tion would bring uni­on jobs to the neigh­bor­hood.

Theresa Cos­tello, who lives in Port Rich­mond and is an alumna of Nativ­ity B.V.M. School, said a seni­or liv­ing fa­cil­ity would be an ideal use of the build­ing.

“We have a lot of older people here who would like to stay in Rich­mond with their fam­ily, friends, church…everything they’re used to,” she said.

Her 81-year-old moth­er is one of them. Cos­tello’s moth­er, she said, couldn’t wait un­til the Nativ­ity pro­ject got star­ted so she could put her name on the wait­ing list.

Margi Megill of Fishtown also spoke of the pos­it­ive changes seni­or liv­ing fa­cil­it­ies bring to a neigh­bor­hood. Neu­mann Seni­or Hous­ing, also known as the Mar­ie Le­der­er Seni­or Cen­ter, at 1601 Palmer St. in Fishtown — formerly St. Mary’s Hos­pit­al — was com­pleted in 2006. HUD also provided the funds for that pro­ject.

“Turn­ing Saint Mary’s in­to a seni­or liv­ing com­munity has been great for both the seni­ors and the neigh­bors,” Megill said. “The seni­ors in our neigh­bor­hood who have large homes with no one else liv­ing there couldn’t wait for the apart­ments to be done. A [seni­or liv­ing] com­munity would be an as­set to my neigh­bors in Port Rich­mond.”

On Oc­to­ber 8, 2012, Wag­n­er again ad­dressed neigh­bors, this time through a let­ter to the com­munity dated ex­actly three years after the night he spoke to them in per­son at the former school.

“Many people have asked what ever happened to the seni­or hous­ing since the beau­ti­ful former school build­ing now sits va­cant and boarded up, still wait­ing to once again be a source of pride for Port Rich­mond,” the let­ter reads.

So what, in fact, has happened?


In late Novem­ber, a post popped up on the Port Rich­mond Town Watch’s Face­book page. It pro­claimed, “Nativ­ity School broken in­to AGAIN!!” Fol­low­ing the ini­tial post were more than 70 oth­er com­ments from angry neigh­bors, each un­able to un­der­stand why the build­ing was simply fall­ing in­to dis­repair. 

In­deed, the va­cant build­ing has seen its share of il­li­cit activ­ity.

Since 2009, 24th Dis­trict po­lice of­ficers re­spon­ded to sev­en in­cid­ents at the prop­erty ran­ging from burg­lary, theft and van­dal­ism to “crim­in­al mis­chief,” ac­cord­ing to dis­trict re­ports.

Wag­n­er, echo­ing the com­ments from Port Rich­mond res­id­ents on the PRTW Face­book page, said a long­stand­ing va­cant prop­erty only brings trouble, as is evid­enced by the April 2012 Buck Ho­siery fact­ory fire in Kens­ing­ton.

“Fol­low­ing the fire in Kens­ing­ton, the city ad­dressed all va­cant build­ings in the city. We re­spon­ded to that,” Wag­n­er said. “We were the ones that se­cured all the open­ings in the build­ings, we se­cured a con­tract­or, we locked the doors.”

As the own­ers of the build­ing’s va­cant com­mer­cial prop­erty li­cense, CHCS is re­spons­ible for se­cur­ing the build­ing, which comes at great cost the longer it stays va­cant and scofflaws keep break­ing in, Wag­n­er said.

And though CHCS ori­gin­ally slated com­ple­tion of the Nativ­ity pro­ject for the be­gin­ning of this year, va­cant it re­mains, thanks to the leg­al pro­ceed­ings of op­posed parties.

In or­der to con­vert Nativ­ity B.V.M. in­to seni­or hous­ing, Wag­n­er said, the Zon­ing Board of Ad­just­ment would have to grant cer­tain vari­ances, such as the four-story ad­di­tion, the park­ing spaces and land­scaped areas and walk­ways.

Un­der the city’s old Zon­ing Code — court pro­ceed­ings took place un­der that code — the va­cant build­ing is in the R-10 Res­id­en­tial Zon­ing Dis­trict, which only per­mits single fam­ily homes, res­id­en­tial re­lated uses — such as places of wor­ship, mu­ni­cip­al art gal­ler­ies, lib­rar­ies, or mu­seums — and non-res­id­en­tial uses, such as fire or po­lice sta­tions, med­ic­al and sur­gic­al hos­pit­als, wa­ter or sewage pump­ing sta­tions.

The De­part­ment of Li­censes & In­spec­tions had ori­gin­ally re­fused the Arch­diocese’s ap­plic­a­tion be­cause its pro­posed use was not per­mit­ted in the Zon­ing Dis­trict. L&I also re­fused, ac­cord­ing to a Sept. 14 ap­peal tran­script of the state Com­mon­wealth Court, be­cause it held that “the pro­posed park­ing spaces were in­suf­fi­cient in num­ber and size and land­scap­ing in the pro­posed park­ing lot was in­suf­fi­cient…and the height and num­ber of stor­ies pro­posed were in ex­cess of the max­im­ums per­mit­ted by the Zon­ing Code.”

The Arch­diocese then ap­pealed to the ZBA, Wag­n­er said, which gran­ted the vari­ances. The Pennsylvania Court of Com­mon Pleas up­held the vari­ances as well. Also ac­cord­ing to the Com­mon­wealth Court tran­script, the Phil­adelphia City Plan­ning Com­mis­sion also had no ob­jec­tion to the grant­ing of the vari­ances re­ques­ted by the Arch­diocese.

Then, an ap­pel­lant took the case to the Com­mon­wealth Court of Pennsylvania, which over­turned the de­cision of the ZBA based on its be­lief that the Arch­diocese did not prove eco­nom­ic hard­ship in con­vert­ing the build­ing in­to per­miss­ible uses — es­sen­tially, the Arch­diocese must prove that it would be too cost-pro­hib­it­ive to turn the build­ing in­to uses per­mit­ted un­der the Zon­ing Code.

The ZBA had found that the Arch­diocese es­tab­lished “that the prop­erty had a unique phys­ic­al struc­ture that cre­ated a hard­ship un­der the op­er­at­ive zon­ing reg­u­la­tions, and that this hard­ship was not cre­ated by the Arch­diocese.”

The Com­mon­wealth Court dis­agreed when presen­ted the ap­peal.

The ap­pel­lant, Glor­ia Mar­shall, who lives in the neigh­bor­hood, did not at­tend the hear­ing. Her son, at­tor­ney Jon Mar­shall, test­i­fied on her be­half be­fore the ZBA.

Jon Mar­shall would not com­ment when Star reached him by phone earli­er this month.

Ac­cord­ing to the tran­script, though, he test­i­fied that the Arch­diocese “could have simply raised tu­ition in­stead of clos­ing the ele­ment­ary school, and, there­fore, any eco­nom­ic hard­ship was cre­ated by the Arch­diocese it­self.”

Fur­ther, Mar­shall test­i­fied that park­ing is a prob­lem in the pro­posed area. He also ex­pressed con­cerns about trash re­mov­al from the pro­posed apart­ments and “pieces of ce­ment fall­ing from the build­ing onto the street,” pre­sum­ably dur­ing the con­struc­tion pro­cess.

“Not un­til the day he showed up in the ZBA hear­ing did we know that any­body op­posed it,” Wag­n­er said. “If we had known, we would have had all the people that sup­por­ted it to come to the ZBA meet­ing.”

Re­gard­ing park­ing, the tran­script fur­ther reads:

“Maria Wing, coun­sel for the Arch­diocese, test­i­fied that the Arch­diocese in­ten­ded to pe­ti­tion for re­mov­al of ‘no park­ing dur­ing school hours’ signs near the prop­erty, which would cre­ate an ad­di­tion­al 20 to 30 park­ing spaces on the street, which would sat­is­fy the Zon­ing Code’s re­quire­ment of 19 park­ing spaces. Wing also ex­plained that be­cause many res­id­ents of the pro­posed pro­ject would be over the age of 62 and at or be­low the poverty level, they would be less likely to own cars and, there­fore, would have a lim­ited need for park­ing.”

The Com­mon­wealth Court ad­dressed in the tran­script that the Arch­diocese’s testi­mony “nev­er ac­tu­ally ad­dressed the is­sue of why there was a unique hard­ship to the prop­erty war­rant­ing the grant­ing of vari­ances,” and “com­pletely failed to ad­dress how the phys­ic­al char­ac­ter­ist­ics of the prop­erty would pre­vent it from be­ing util­ized as one of the many oth­er per­mit­ted uses in an R-10A Zon­ing Dis­trict.”

Wag­n­er as­serts that CHCS be­lieves the seni­or liv­ing pro­ject is the best use simply be­cause of the need in the com­munity, and that it’s what the neigh­bors want most.

“What we in­ten­ded to have it con­ver­ted in­to…it [would] serve the moth­ers and fath­ers of the chil­dren who were edu­cated in this neigh­bor­hood,” he said.

“We don’t want something else that is among the [per­miss­ible] uses,” Cos­tello said. “We could have done that.”

The Com­mon­wealth Court also ad­ded, “The Arch­diocese presen­ted no evid­ence demon­strat­ing, for ex­ample, why it could not have util­ized the prop­erty as low-in­come seni­or hous­ing without adding the pro­posed four-story ad­di­tion to the ex­ist­ing struc­ture.”

To that, Wag­n­er said seni­or liv­ing fa­cil­it­ies are most cost-ef­fect­ive if they have between 60 and 65 units, which could only be ac­com­plished at Nativ­ity through adding the four-story struc­ture. Oth­er­wise, he said, there aren’t enough apart­ments for the ten­ants’ rents to keep the build­ing up and run­ning.

“There’s no money in this, this is a zero-sum game,” Wag­n­er said. “It’s break-even op­er­a­tions.”

Still, the Com­mon­wealth Court re­versed the or­der of the Court of Com­mon Pleas of Phil­adelphia County on Oct. 11, 2012.


On Dec. 27, Wag­n­er said, the Arch­diocese filed with the Pennsylvania Su­preme Court for an ap­peal to the Com­mon­wealth Court’s re­versal.

“We are hope­ful the Su­preme Court will hear this,” he said, but ad­ded that HUD could take away the pro­ject’s fund­ing if CHCS doesn’t get an ex­ten­sion, and the pro­ject is cer­tainly “at risk” of be­ing moved to an­oth­er loc­a­tion if the Su­preme Court doesn’t hear the case.

City Coun­cil­man Bobby Hen­on (D- 6th dist.) has long been in sup­port of the Nativ­ity con­ver­sion, and also sees the va­cant build­ing as a haz­ard to his con­stitu­ency.

“It’s just an in­vit­a­tion for un­scru­pu­lous activ­ity,” he said. “It’s like an empty ware­house.”

As far as the Mar­shalls’ ap­peal, Hen­on said he’s baffled.

“Why he [Jon] is go­ing to con­tin­ue on the lit­ig­a­tion path is bey­ond me,” he said, adding that the con­cerns Mar­shall raised in testi­mony were ad­dressed by CHCS — it in­ten­ded to provide solu­tions.

“When you have a tre­mend­ous need for seni­or hous­ing in Phil­adelphia, es­pe­cially in Rich­mond, you have a re­spons­ib­il­ity [to the com­munity],” Hen­on said. “What oth­er is­sues are out there on the table that would de­ter him?”

For now, while neigh­bors and CHCS alike wait to see what might hap­pen next, Hen­on said neigh­bors should do the only thing he thinks they can do — write let­ters to the Pennsylvania Su­preme Court ask­ing that it hears the case.

“I hope the Su­preme Court will hear it,” Hen­on said. “I’m will­ing to do whatever I can. I will be the loud voice for the com­munity to try to see this through.”

As far as Wag­n­er, he said he will con­tin­ue to keep the com­munity in­formed of how the pro­ject moves along, and just hopes the courts will re­cog­nize CHCS’ past pro­jects as an ex­ample of what could come to Port Rich­mond.

“Look at the kind of neigh­bors we are,” he said at the end of the Decem­ber tour of St. John Neu­mann Place, as he showed the way to the exit, which opened up onto a se­rene and grassy court­yard.

Per­haps, he said, Jon Mar­shall too will come around.

“This isn’t about us win­ning and him los­ing,” Wag­n­er said. “It’s about the neigh­bor­hood.” ••

Ad­dress let­ters to the state Su­preme Court to:

Pennsylvania Ju­di­cial Cen­ter

601 Com­mon­wealth Ave., Suite 4500

PO Box 62575

Har­ris­burg, PA 17106-2575

Or, call 717-787-6181

To re­port break-ins or oth­er prob­lems at the Nativ­ity B.V.M. School:

Con­tact the 24th Dis­trict, 215-686-3240; email po­lice.co_24@phila.gov; call the 24th Dis­trict’s an­onym­ous ti­p­line at 215-685-3281.

For oth­er crime re­port­ing in­form­a­tion, check out Star’s story:


Star Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113, or mjam­is­on@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

comments powered by Disqus