Assumption Case Enters Unfamiliar Territory As L&I Board Sends Case Back To Historical Commission

 

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

While demolition remains on hold for the historic Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street, its immediate future remains unclear following an unusual move by the Board of Licenses and Inspections Review on Wednesday afternoon.

After hearing arguments concerning the right of the church’s present owner to demolish it based on financial hardship, the Board issued a request for an opinion from the Philadelphia Historical Commission “as soon as possible” concerning the case. They recommended that the matter be taken up at the Commission’s next monthly meeting, which is to be held this Friday, January 11th. In the meantime, the review board retains the right to issue a final decision on the appeal of the demolition permit.

The hearing opened with Samuel Stretton, the attorney for the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, summarizing the events leading up to the present appeal: the granting of hardship by the Historical Commission to the church’s previous owner, the nonprofit Siloam, in September 2010; the Board of L&I Review’s overturning of the Commission’s decision in May 2011 after CNA appealed; the sale of the church to John Wei in July 2012, while Siloam’s appeal of L&I’s decision was still being heard before the Court of Common Pleas; and the ruling by Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox, three months after the sale, reinstating the Commission’s original hardship ruling.

Stretton and CNA then appealed Fox’s ruling to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, where the case is still pending. In the meantime, Wei applied for and received a demolition permit after L&I checked with the Historical Commission, who consulted the City’s Law Department to verify the reading of Fox’s decision. The City held that the hardship runs with the land regardless of the owner.

The Church of the Assumption in 1919

The Church of the Assumption in 1919

When Wei’s permit was approved in December, Stretton asked for a stay of demolition from the Commonwealth Court. The court refused, he said, because a new party had taken the permit, not Siloam. Thus, he turned to the Board of L&I Review, which issued the stay on the very day that demolition was approved to commence.

Although he made reference to the witnesses who had testified in the past to make the case that the church’s repair was feasible, Stretton told the board he didn’t believe witnesses would be necessary for the present appeal. “Our argument, based on the record, speaks for itself,” he said.

The correct procedure, according to Stretton, was for the new owner to prove the case for financial hardship before the Historical Commission, especially since Wei was a commercial developer with financial circumstances distinct from Siloam’s. He added that Wei’s purchase in July proved that the church did have value and undermined Siloam’s original case for razing it.

“They’re saying, been there, done that,” Stretton said. “We’re saying it’s a new person and a different standard. Mr. Wei is not a nonprofit.”

Defending the actions of the City was solicitor Andrew Ross, who argued that the appellants had no evidence to present to challenge the principle of “the ruling follows the land.”

“There is no ordinance that says, if I have a property for which I obtain a permit and then sell it to you, that you can’t proceed on the permit,” Ross told the board.

He dismissed Stretton’s claim that the Historical Commission judged hardship according to an owner’s financial well-being and cited Judge Fox’s October ruling that the church’s hardship was based on the value of the property and the costs of repairing and maintaining it.

Regardless, Ross concluded, the Board was present to decide on the permit itself, as the hardship reading was something for the Commonwealth Court to decide on.

Representing the church’s owner was Carl Primavera, who has garnered a reputation for taking on developers mired in high-profile legal battles. Primavera said that while he appreciated the community’s push to save the church, the structure’s unsafe condition posed a serious liability to his client.

Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Photo: Chandra Lampreich

“If someone could have saved this beautiful building, they would have,” he said.

Stretton countered that Wei understood what he was getting himself into when he bought the church and that nothing was stopping him from making repairs.

In appealing the issuing of the permit, CNA sought one of two outcomes: to have the Historical Commission conduct a brand new hardship review for the new owner, or to have the permit stayed until the appeal in Commonwealth Court was finally resolved.

However, the Board’s decision, which followed about 45 minutes of oral arguments and 15 minutes of deliberation, did not fit in with either scenario. While the Historical Commission is supposed to report back to the Board on the situation, the Commission does not have the final say on the appeal. Questions concerning what procedure the Commission will follow were also unanswered by Board members, who suggested that would be left up to the Commission to decide. Since its next meeting is on Friday, there is also the question of whether the Commission is even able to take up the case on such short notice.

Following the hearing, Jonathan Farnham, the Commission’s executive director, acknowledged the unfamiliar terrain that the three-year-old case surrounding Assumption was now entering. The first step for him would be to review the Board’s decision in writing to determine what exactly was required of him and the body. Otherwise, Farnham said, “anything could happen” on Friday and in the intervening days.

About the author

Christopher Mote covers stories of preservation, planning, zoning and development. He lives in South Philadelphia and has a special fondness for brownstone churches and mansard roofs.

Send him a message at: motecw[at]hotmail[dot]com



1 Comment


  1. The real question is why Jon Farnham is leading the Commission into “unfamiliar territory?”

    The case is rather simple, and the reason for lack of precendent is obvious.
    A hardship decision is based on the fact that the property can not be sold. Obviously a sale renders the hardship decision moot.

    Granted hardship for non-profits and individuals are not based on whether the property can be sold. But these exceptions are based on the owner’s circumstances and clearly become moot upon sale of the property.

    Now the right thing for the Historical Commission to do is to recognize that for whatever reason, they have erred.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Residents Sound Off To Land Bank Following Release Of New Report

Residents Sound Off To Land Bank Following Release Of New Report

June 21, 2019  |  News

The Philadelphia Land Bank draws anger and frustration with the release of its new strategic plan and performance report. Kimberly Haas has the details > more

Growing Pains Yield Gains For The Mütter Museum

Growing Pains Yield Gains For The Mütter Museum

June 20, 2019  |  News

The Mütter Museum, one to the country's premiere medical history museums, prepares for a major expansion with a $25 million capital campaign and designs by KieranTimberlake. Kimberly Haas has the news > more

Italian-American Heritage & Industrial Landmarks Go Under Review For Historic Designation Recommendation

Italian-American Heritage & Industrial Landmarks Go Under Review For Historic Designation Recommendation

June 17, 2019  |  News

Starr Herr-Cardillo has this roundup of local register nominations on the agenda at the June meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission's Designation Committee > more

Homeowners Pay The Price When New Construction Damages Neighboring Rows

Homeowners Pay The Price When New Construction Damages Neighboring Rows

June 14, 2019  |  News

Owners of row houses are left with little recourse when demolition and new construction causes structural damage to their homes. Starr Herr-Cardillo takes a look at a growing citywide problem > more

The Origins Of The Eagles On The Market Street Bridge

The Origins Of The Eagles On The Market Street Bridge

June 13, 2019  |  Vantage

Ed Duffy rides the rails from Manhattan to Philadelphia to give us the backstory on the granite eagle sculptures that stand guard over the Schuylkill River > more

<em>Tonight Is Forever</em> Honors Stonewall Riots & Philly LGBT Activism History

Tonight Is Forever Honors Stonewall Riots & Philly LGBT Activism History

June 11, 2019  |  News

A new art installation at William Way LGBT Community Center connects local and national moments in gay liberation history. Ali Roseberry-Polier takes a look > more