Members of the Port Richmond community continue to pray a verdict will soon be reached on a proposal to convert the abandoned Nativity BVM School into senior housing. The school closed its doors in 2008. No ruling from the State Supreme Court has been announced and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is looking to secure an $11 million grant for renovations to the building located on 3255 Belgrade St.
“They said it could take up to three months,” said Theresa Costello, President of the Port Richmond Community Group. “We had the hearing in March, so shortly we are hoping that we will get the answer.”
The project had been halted due to an appeal from resident Gloria Marshall and her son, attorney Jon Marshall. According to the court documents filed in Gloria Marshall v. City of Philadelphia and Zoning Board of Adjustment, attorney Marshall testified on behalf of his mother stating that there is a residential parking problem and that trash removal from the proposed apartments would be hazardous to the surrounding neighbors. Attorney Marshall did not respond to several attempts for comment.
Despite the proposed concerns from Marshall, the rest of the Port Richmond community has been rallying for the past few years to raise awareness about the senior housing project. This past winter Ken Paul, president of Port Richmond on Patrol and Civic Association (PROPAC), held a rally in Campbell Square Park in order to increase continued support for the project.
“We were all bundled up, it was freezing, and yet everyone came out and packed the park,” said Paul. “Councilman Mark Squilla came out, Councilman Bobby Henon, state Rep. John Taylor and everyone rallied. It is these types of things that brings our neighborhood together.”
Marc Collazzo, attorney and Republican candidate for 170th PA State House District, attended the hearing in March on behalf of state Rep. John Taylor (R-177th Dist.). Collazzo is currently working with the archdiocese on maintaining the building, which has been damaged by vandals and the homeless, while awaiting the results of the state Supreme Court.
“Our job is to serve our constituents and what the neighborhood wants, and they want this,” said Collazzo. “In the short term, we are working with the city of Philadelphia and the archdiocese to keep this building maintained, and it’s not an easy thing to do. I want them to go out and secure the building up a bit.”
If the plans of the renovation are approved, the building would provide more than 60 housing units to senior residents with low income. A 2013 study conducted by graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design found that in 2010, 88 percent of Philadelphia households within a half-mile of a closed school site have incomes below the city’s average of $60,000, while 34 percent of residents within a half-mile of a closing school site live below the $23,000 poverty line. There are 101 acres of vacant land in the city due to these school closings, which adds a noticeable blight to the surrounding neighborhoods. If converted, Nativity BVM would be transformed into a useful building that would add life to the Port Richmond community.
“The building is in a great location and serves as an identity of the neighborhood,” said Kimiko Doherty, manager of community development for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “There is a need for senior housing. The apartments would be designed in a way that seniors can continue to live independently. There would be zero step entrances, elevators and handicap accessible bathrooms.”
Patty Pat Kozlowski, secretary of PROPAC, explained how the residents of Port Richmond have such a pride for their community. She would want nothing more then to see Nativity BVM turned into a place where seniors can continue to reside near their family and friends.
“When you have a neighborhood like Port Richmond with a lot of Roman Catholic parishes, people are baptized and buried at the same church and school. They raise their families here and we see that our seniors do not want to leave this neighborhood,” said Kozlowski. “Our seniors are living in three bedroom multilevel houses that are unsuitable for them to live in. But they don’t want to leave their community and this could fix that.”
If the ruling is passed, Kozlowski and other community group members are planning a celebration in Campbell Square Park, located across the street from Nativity BVM.
“It’s the heart and soul of Port Richmond. When good things happen everyone goes there to celebrate like when the Phillies won the World Series,” said Kozlowski. “If we win this and get senior housing here, we are going to have a big hotdog cookout for all the seniors with Polish music, string bands and all.”
– Text, video and images by Angelise Stuhl