City issues demolition permit for church
by Timothy Cwiek
Dec 06, 2012 | 804 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has issued a permit to demolish an old Catholic church once owned by a local HIV/AIDS agency, even though the dispute remains pending in state Commonwealth Court.

A notice of demolition was posted in front of the Church of the Assumption last week, stating that demolition may begin on Dec. 11.

Built in 1849, the Gothic-style church is located at 1123 Spring Garden St. in the Callowhilll section of the city.

It was owned by the AIDS agency Siloam for several years, but Siloam sold it to MJ Central Investment L.P. in July.

John Wei of MJ Central Investment couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Callowhill Neighborhood Association opposes the demolition, contending the church is a tourist attraction and a stabilizing force in the area.

But in October, Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox cleared the way for demolition, ruling that it would be a hardship for Siloam to maintain the dilapidated structure, which has been vacant for about 15 years.

Andrew S. Ross, deputy chief city solicitor, said the judge’s approval of the demolition remains with the property, regardless of a change in ownership.

“It wouldn’t matter if the new owner were the King of Siam or a next-door neighbor,” Ross said. “The new owner has whatever approvals there were on that property. That’s my legal assessment of it.”

Ross noted a demolition isn’t automatically blocked when an appeal is filed.

He also said it would be wrong to treat demolition approvals differently than other land-use approvals that remain with a property when it’s sold.

But Samuel C. Stretton, an attorney for CNA, said it would be wrong to demolish the church with an appeal pending.

Stretton noted that CNA appealed Fox’s ruling in state Commonwealth Court, and he plans to seek a stay of the demolition.

“I believe the law is with us,” he said.

Neighborhood activist Andrew R. Palewski said the city’s Board of Licenses and Inspection Review thoroughly investigated the proposed demolition, and properly blocked it in May 2011.

Pawleski said St. Katharine Drexel was baptized in the church, which was designated on the city’s Register of Historic Places in 2009, as an infant in 1858.

He also refuted the judge’s contention that Siloam’s annual budget when it owned the church ranged between $5,000-$7,000, saying the figures are closer to $500,000 and $700,000.

“The Common Pleas ruling was misguided and overlooked the most basic failure of Siloam’s case, which was an inability to meet the three criteria that establish financial hardship,” Palewski said. “According to the rules and regulations of the Historical Commission, the owner is required to make a good-faith effort to sell the property, seek tenants for it and to explore potential reuses for it. Although Siloam made an ostensible effort to sell the property, they made no attempt whatsoever to seek tenants for the property or explore other uses for it.”

Palewski said economic conditions have improved since Siloam sought to demolish the church about four years ago.

“Siloam was awarded hardship under circumstances that were unique to them and to the economic conditions that existed at the time,” Palewski continued. “Even if we were to believe that Siloam made a good-faith attempt to sell the property, they did so in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — a crisis brought about by the collapse of the real-estate market. So how is it justifiable that John Wei, a real-estate developer, could now inherit a hardship ruling that is based on the financial straits of an unsustainable non-profit — or a sales process that took place during one of the worst real-estate markets in American history?”

In September 2010, the city’s Historical Commission approved the church’s demolition, citing the hardship it posed to Siloam.

But Palewski contends the decision was made without all the facts.

“The responsible way to have handled John Wei’s [demolition] permit application would have been to stick it in a file folder at the Historical Commission until the appeals process had run its course,” he said.

Jonathan E. Farnham, executive director of the commission, declined to comment.

“I have nothing to add to the statement made by Mr. Ross,” Farnham said in an email.

Sarah McEneaney, president of the CNA, echoed Palewski’s sentiments.

“We were shocked to learn that L&I has issued a permit to demolish the church,” McEneaney said in an email. “We continue to believe that the Church of the Assumption is historically and architecturally significant and should be preserved.”

Marissa R. Parker, an attorney for Siloam, said she doesn’t expect the agency to be involved in continued litigation regarding the church.

“Siloam no longer owns the building, so I do not expect they will be involved in any litigation going forward,” Parker said.

Siloam rents space from Wei to operate out of an old Catholic rectory near the church while it searches for a new location.

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