Faithful Laurentians board member Venise Whitaker speaks out against a plan to turn St. Laurentius into a 23-unit apartment building.

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One group says St. Laurentius is doomed for demolition. Another’s still holding out hope it can be saved. In the end, both factions want the same thing: To save the the city’s first Polish Catholic Church, which has been ingrained in the fabric of the Fishtown community for the last 130 years.

But after a community vote Tuesday night denied a developer who wants to turn the old church into apartments, the future of the church that in many ways defines the skyline of the neighborhood is in doubt — and some say that move to save the church may lead to its demolition.

With a vote of 167-105, residents who attended a Fishtown Neighborhood Association zoning meeting Tuesday night denied developer Leo Voloshin’s request for the very zoning variance that would allow him to finalize his purchase of the St. Laurentius Church, which has been through a three-year roller coaster of infighting over its fate.

FNA officials said Tuesday’s turnout was likely the largest they’ve ever seen for a zoning meeting: Well over 250 people packed into the stuffy basement of Holy Name of Jesus Parish. Tempers flared. Personalities clashed. At times, the meeting included personal attacks between two major groups — Save St. Laurentius and The Faithful Laurentians — the former of which says selling off the structurally questionable church is the only way to save the building from demolition entirely. The latter’s still clinging to a hope it can be turned into a community center of some sort. That’s preferable, in their minds, to seeing it rented out in 23 unit-sized chunks, likely to newer residents who never knew the church when it was in operation.

At one point during the meeting, two men representing both sides of the argument got into a heated verbal altercation, with one man from Faithful Laurentians saying “let’s take this outside” and another from Save St. Laurentius flinging insults like “liar” and “maniac.” By the end of the night after the final vote had been taken, their argument had spilled out onto the sidewalk and somehow devolved into a back-and-forth about (what else?) Donald Trump.

Developer Leo Voloshin speaks to community members in Fishtown about his vision for St. Laurentius Church.
Developer Leo Voloshin speaks to community members in Fishtown about his vision for St. Laurentius Church. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Voloshin, the Fishtown developer who owns a textile company in Kensington and developed Paper Box Studios at Cecil B. Moore and N. Hancock St., spent the better part of two hours Tuesday being grilled by community members and then insisting he’s in it to save the church. He says the outside of the building won’t be changed, save for $1 million worth of renovations and improvements needed to make the building structurally sufficient — one of the reasons why it’s being sold off in the first place. On the inside, he says, “we’re really not touching the physical interior except adding walls.”

In 2014, St. Laurentius was deconsecrated because of concerns about its safety and, by March 2015, it was set for demolition by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. At the time, the Archdiocese estimated renovations necessary to fix the building would have cost $3.5 million while demolition would have cost $1 million.

Those figures have since been disputed — Voloshin said he estimated exterior improvements would only cost $1 million. Still, Holy Name Parish — which had merged with St. Laurentius in 2013 — would have been responsible for coming up with the funds, so the Archdiocese chose the demolition route. (It said St. Laurentius School which is located adjacent to the church wouldn’t be touched.)

Then, the demolition never happened. In July 2015, the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted in favor of granting the church historic status, effectively putting off the demolition. But having historic status doesn’t necessarily save a structure from demolition if city officials believe a collapse is imminent or safety of the surrounding block is at risk.

Therein lies the problem for those who want to save St. Laurentius: Time is not on their side.

A woman speaks out against turning St. Laurentius into a 23-unit apartment building.
A woman speaks out against turning St. Laurentius into a 23-unit apartment building. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Some of the questions Voloshin answered from the crowd Tuesday were focused on parking problems that already persist. Voloshin’s plan doesn’t include parking for any of the 23 units he’s proposing, and some neighbors are furious, saying 23 or more cars can’t be added to the public parking mess that already is the area.

A.J. Thomson, a Fishtown lawyer and a member of the Save St. Laurentius group, urged his fellow residents to vote “yes” on Voloshin’s plan, saying if they wait for the perfect re-use of the building, the Archdiocese could choose to demolish St. Laurentius or sell it off to someone who wants to rip it down and put in up to nine residential homes for which the area is already zoned.

“I have been living this nightmare for three years,” Thomson said. “We’re here because we have a gun to our head… If this plan is not approved, the Archdiocese is going to demolish this building as soon as it can. Don’t vote against this because of parking.” He later said outside in front of a group of people after the vote was taken: “Anybody who votes against this is a myopic moron.”

Other questions Voloshin fielded were more probing in nature: How much money do you stand to make off of this? (Didn’t disclose that.) When did this space become no longer sacred? (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) Will you commit to adding some sort of community space? (Probably not.)

The developer told those in the meeting that though his background is in commercial space, developing the church without going the residential route wasn’t financially feasible. Translated? He wouldn’t make enough money to justify spending a million bucks rehabbing the falling-apart exterior.

Renderings of Developer Leo Voloshin's plans for a 23-unit apartment complex inside the St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown.
Renderings of Developer Leo Voloshin’s plans for a 23-unit apartment complex inside the St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown. Credit: Facebook

Jesse Gardner, a Northern Liberties resident, and Venise Whitaker, who lives four houses away from St. Laurentius, are board members of the Faithful Laurentians. They say there are appeals to the Vatican to save the church that still haven’t been ruled on and won’t be decided on until 2017. They’d like to hold out hope that, ideally, the church can go back to being a church.

“What we’re looking at here is the loss of a sacred space,” Gardner said. “When I saw this plan, I was really disappointed. You will never be able to get in that building without knowing someone. You will never realize what you’ve lost until it’s gone. Without the interior, the exterior is just a shell.”

Whitaker said the idea that it will be demolished if they don’t approve the zoning so a developer can turn it into apartments is an empty threat.

People are trying to dissuade us,” she said. “I use it as a challenge.”

But they can no longer wait. The building is becoming more structurally questionable by the day. L&I has already cited it. And on Nov. 1, Voloshin takes his proposal to the city’s Zoning Board of Approval, but without a recommendation from the neighborhood association, his efforts are an uphill battle. He can appeal and eventually re-pitch the FNA if he wishes.

“This is a beautiful building,” Voloshin said during the meeting, “and it would be a damn shame to lose it.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.