You didn’t have to walk far in Manayunk to find a controversial meeting was the talk of the neighborhood. On street pole after street pole, a notice was posted about the rezoning of the unused St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption property and “The Developer.” Other details included visiting a website called (Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.) and how this would be the “ONLY” time the developer would be available, making it clear this meeting about a proposed 100-apartment project redeveloping the church and its grounds wasn’t going to be a happy one.

And so it went Wednesday night at a Manayunk Neighborhood Council meeting: Dozens of residents of Manayunk and nearby Roxborough lobbed questions and complaints at developer Jack Bienenfeld, Jones and leadership of St. John’s Church, which has control over the St. Mary’s property. Two and a half hours later, 122 people voted against rezoning the property and four voted in favor. Even by standards of neighborhood meetings over similar issues, this one got heated.

Here’s a sampling of comments:

  • “Don’t you have a moral responsibility to us? Don’t you have a religious responsibility to us?”
  • “Are we pawns because the government’s going to do what the government does?”
  • “I kind of want to keep on talking because I’m really mad.”
  • “Are you saying I’m a liar?”
  • “Forget about the parking because none of it will be left. You will have lost your hair because you will have pulled it out….Your family life will be destroyed. Your mental health will be destroyed.”

Bienenfeld’s project would keep the St. Mary’s church, rectory and school intact and place apartment buildings on what is currently a private parking lot. The church and rectory were designated as historic last year, but Bienenfeld said he had always planned to reuse the properties.

St. Mary’s provides another example of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s struggles. It closed as a church and worship center in 2015, three years after it had merged with neighboring St. John’s parish. From 2000 to 2014, Catholic parishes in the area shrunk from 286 to 219.  

The saga also parallels what’s happened with St. Laurentius in Fishtown. After attendees at a Fishtown Neighbors Association rejected reuse of the church as apartments over objections to parking, leaving it vulnerable to demolition, the Zoning Board of Adjustment ruled in favor of the reuse anyway. The difference here is there is no foreseeable demolition threat to St. Mary’s, given its historic status.

Wednesday’s meeting was set in motion by a proposal from Jones to change the zoning of the area to allow multi-family housing. It will be followed by a meeting in front of the Civic Design Review Board and Council hearings if it goes the distance. Though church leadership and Bienenfeld’s team have agreed to an offer sheet, nothing has been finalized.

Parking and traffic, as they are in many neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia whenever new developments are proposed, were the main concern. The project would have 100 apartments and about 150 bedrooms and 130 parking spots — more parking than what’s required by the city, but not nearly enough in the opinion of the people in attendance. One man told the story of first meeting his wife in Manayunk 30 years ago and being able to park across from his house. Now he has to park near a football field blocks away.

“I’m tired of being a prisoner in my own neighborhood,” he said.

But this isn’t quite the typical Philadelphia parking story. North Light Community Center, which has been around since 1936, is located across the street from the church. Irene Madrak, executive director of North Light, said the church lets the community center use 17 parking spots. The developers’ parking offer to North Light was 10 guest spots that could also be used by any guest of a tenant and, if those spots were consistently unavailable, a payment of $125 for each unavailable spot of the 10 per month.

Madrak called the offer, made a few weeks ago, “half-hearted,” “unworkable” and “demoralizing to me.” Bienenfeld, though, said he thought they walked away from the meeting “good friends.” He also said the developers changed their original plan from 120 apartments and 120 parking spaces to the current iteration because of feedback from the community.

Asked if she’d favor the project if North Light was offered 17 full-time spots like it has from the church, Madrak said she wasn’t sure and added “that ship has sailed” for many people in the community. Jones, as he did at a previous neighborhood meeting, said there would be no deal if it was evident North Light didn’t get ample parking.

A man hangs up signs targeted at Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. and developers before a meeting about the redevelopment of St. Mary’s Church in Manayunk. Credit: Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Other residents opposed how the apartment complex would change the style of the neighborhood of mostly rowhomes. Some also voiced concern about the likely tenants not becoming longtime residents and contributors. Manayunk right now has a ratio of about 58 to 42 percent own vs. rent, compared to 52 to 48 percent for the city as a whole.

Bienenfeld explained multiple times his group examined the possibility of rowhomes or other types of single-family housing for on top of what is now the parking lot. He said the cost to do it would be greater than he could sell it for.

Over the last several months and throughout the meeting, there were comments alleging the developers, church and city government were working together on a rigged plan. Bienenfeld’s team tried to quell those rumors, pointing out a 2016 rezoning recommendation from the City Planning Commission that was made before their offer. Jones said he had not met with the developers about rezoning until January of this year after, he said, Bienenfeld was the “apparent awardee.”

Their words were never enough to convince the majority of residents at the meeting. They poked and questioned from 7:30 to 10 p.m., until they had to be told by neighborhood leadership that was enough.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...