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?
ALL TIED UP IN COURT
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; 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 email@example.com.