Zoning, Development and Parking Discussed for Development of St. Mary’s of the Assumption Property

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by Heidi Gold

Some 60 residents of Manayunk gathered at North Light Community Center March 23 for the first meeting to discuss redevelopment plans for St. Mary’s of the Assumption Church, located at 176 Conarroe Street.

The land, which includes a 100-space parking lot, sanctuary building, rectory, a five-story school, and convent is under agreement of sale with developer, Jack Bienenfeld.

MNC Community Mtg 3-23-16

Manayunk neighbors discuss future of St. Mary of the Assumption property.

Citing among other things, a maintenance cost of $218,000 to make necessary major repairs for the buildings and property for its continued use and an ongoing annual maintenance cost of $138,000 for the 73,000 sq. ft. church property, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced October 18, 2015 that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. relegated the Saint Mary of the Assumption Church building to “profane but not sordid use” effective November 1, 2015. This formal, canonical designation means that the church would no longer serve as worship site and would close as a Roman Catholic church.

There are three Roman Catholic church properties within easy walking distance. Their roots date to a time when churches were formed to serve specific ethnic populations. St. John the Baptist (Irish) borders Pretzel Park on the south, St. Josaphat (Polish) on the north, and St. Mary of the Assumption (German) just a few blocks north of St. Josaphat. Latest diocesan decisions have merged the three congregations with St. John the Baptist.

Kevin Smith, president of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council (MNC), outlined for residents the current conditions of the property.

Conditions in the immediate area are all too familiar with Manayunk residents – narrow streets and lack of ample residential parking.

“It’s a problem on problem on problem,” said Smith.

The Philadelphia Planning Commission surveyed the site in January.

“We’re starting discussions with the community early,” said Smith. “We don’t want to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg when it’s already in sight.”

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A major asset of the St. Mary of the Assumption lot is the 100-space parking lot. The lot borders North Light Community Center. Parking is at a premium in the neighborhood of mostly narrow streets line with rowhouses.

A few residents asked about designating the site for historic preservation. Section 14-2007(5) of the Philadelphia Code provides that the Historical Commission may designate a building, structure, site, object, public interior portion of a building or structure, or district for preservation if it meets the criteria outlined in the code.

The MNC does not have historic preservation on its agenda. Smith did not dissuade residents from pursuing that path on their own.

Smith told residents that some members of the MNC met with the architect for the developer this week and that very early plans keep the existing buildings for development of 120 housing units and 120 parking spaces. The MNC asked for 50 community parking spaces, knowing that demand will always exceed supply.

Some residents said that the lack of residential parking that would result if the parking lot was eliminated would force them to consider moving.

The property is currently zoned in an RSA-5 district, which is primarily intended to accommodate attached and semi-detached houses on individual lots, but may be applied in areas characterized by a mix of housing types, including detached houses.

Josh Cohen, special assistant to 4th District Councilman Curtis Jones, explained that other uses, such as a multi-family building, would require a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. There is also the option to legislatively rezone the property, although this option removes the neighborhood appeals process if they do not agree with the developer’s plans for the site. The best option in that case would be to obtain a Community Benefits Agreement with the developer.

Other residents suggested a holistic approach to redevelopment – looking at what exists and what should exist in the community. Some say this has already been accomplished.

The Nutter Administration’s Philadelphia2035, created in 2011, is the City’s Physical Development – or Comprehensive Six-Year Plan. It looks far into the future, but also deals with the projects, policies, and changes that are needed today to create a more livable, healthy and economically viable city in the future.

The Lower Northwest Plan, adopted December 9, 2014, can be found here: http://phila2035.org/home-page/district/lower-northwest/

Beginning in 2014, the City undertook a zoning remapping that not only charted new futures for all neighborhoods, but completely overhauled the 50-year-old zoning code. The remapping, a recommendation of Philadelphia2035, was designed to protect residential uses on small neighborhood streets from unwanted commercial development and to rezone properties to match their current land use.

As residents filtered out of the two-hour meeting, parking was still first and foremost their priority.

There is no deadline for the sale, and future meetings with representatives from the Archdiocese and the City Planning Commission will be scheduled for the community.

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