Port Richmond senior Eileen Woods said she and her girlfriends were excited to hear about future senior housing at Nativity because it was their former grade school. She said it would be nice to go back and return to her roots.
“Sure, it’d be great for a bunch of us to live in a house by the beach,” Woods said. “But realistically, we’re talking about Nativity. It’d be nice to share a space where we can all take care of each other.”
Catholic Health Care Services (CHCS) is working towards the conversion of the former parish school at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.) located on the corner of Belgrade and Madison Streets into an independent living residence for seniors 62 years and older. The development will consist of 63 one-bedroom apartment units for independent seniors and is primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly.
“We learned the school had closed from the pastor of the parish,” said the director of project development for Catholic Health Care Services John Wagner. “He contacted the secretary for CHCS Joseph Sweeney. Sweeney said we should take a look at the building and see if it would be possible to have an adaptable reuse for senior housing. It was the pastor’s request and at the same time Councilwoman Joan Krajewski who attended the school had a similar thought. We looked at the building and consulted with many people within the parish council and the broader community to ensure this was something the community would support first.”
Wagner said the support from the community has been overwhelming.
He said the timeline has been delayed because there are two individuals in the neighborhood, a mother and a son, who have an appeal before the zoning board. Wagner and CHCS made several attempts to reach out to the residents to try to address their concerns and see if they could cure whatever it was that was troubling them around the development plans but they wanted to go through a legal process instead.
“It’s a load of bologna,” said director of St. Anne’s Senior Citizen and resident of Port Richmond Barbara Jo Hartzell. “We were all very excited about the plans to turn Nativity into housing.”
Social worker for Catholic Social Services Sarah Lewis said she works with many clients who would greatly benefit from the senior housing plans. She explained it takes a lot of money for seniors to take care of a house on their own, especially on fixed incomes.
“There’s a lot of need,” Lewis said. “A lot of these people lived in this neighborhood their entire lives and will not move. There are emergency situations. This senior housing at Nativity would be a change for the better.”
On July 6, there will be a hearing where the Port Richmond residents will have the opportunity to present the reasons why they wouldn’t want the conversion of the parish school to occur. Wagner and CHCS then will present why they feel it’s beneficial to the overall neighborhood, the common good and the seniors who live in and around the community.
“We feel confident that for the common good, the court will find in our favor and we will be able to convert Nativity into an asset for the neighborhood,” Wagner said.
The overarching design goal for the development is to renovate the exterior in a manner that brings the building closer to its original form while bringing a new, long-term use for the building.
This conversion from a school building to senior housing will require substantial removal of interior walls within the building. However, the building will look mostly the same from the exterior. There will also be a small four-story addition to accommodate more residential units. The entire building will have a total gross square footage of 62,500 when complete.
“Each apartment will have its own kitchen, living area, closets, bathroom and one bedroom,” said architect manager for Community Development Archdiocese of Philadelphia Kimiko Doherty. “The building will be air-conditioned, which individual apartments will be able to control. There will be a laundry room on the first and third floors and then there will be a community resident room furnished with a large TV in the lower level as well as a computer room for residents.”
Wagner said there will be access cards for entry into the building. The building will be staffed during the day. CHCS is looking into systems it can afford to senior residents so that they can have easy access to contact the management company if something arises.
“There’s nothing safer than having a fully occupied building, to have more eyes on the street with more people coming in and out of the street on a regular basis in the evenings, early mornings, Saturdays and Sundays,” Doherty said. “I think that’s going to help people feel safe.”
The neighborhood surrounding Nativity B.V.M. place has numerous existing community resources to help seniors remain independent and active in the community. Located within a quarter mile of the site are bakeries, beauty salons, bookstores, churches, doctor offices, funeral homes, insurance agencies and restaurants. The building itself is located fronting Campbell Square Park, the central public gathering place for the community.
“This was not our brainchild,” Wagner said. “We did not come here in hopes to develop this project. We were invited here by the pastor, the people who come to this parish and the larger community to explore and see if this was in fact a good use for this building. This building has served this community since 1916 educating children in the area and now it will have an adaptable reuse where it will serve seniors. We think it’s a wonderful use of the property. It’s responsible.”
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