Getting to Know the Potential Developer of St. Laurentius and the Hurdles Ahead
As Spirit News reported in February, Leo Voloshin, the owner of the Kensington-based textile design company Printfresh Studio, has entered a preliminary agreement to purchase St. Laurentius Church from the Holy Name of Jesus Parish. This agreement is supported by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (AOP). Voloshin currently plans on turning the interior of the church into apartments while keeping the exterior “entirely intact.”
This potential adaptive reuse of the structure has partly filled the hopes of Save St. Laurentius (SSL), a group of community members who organized to save the church from demolition. The AOP sent Spirit News a series of responses to a number of questions regarding the potential sale of the church to Voloshin.
“Any buyer for this building would need to assume any and all liability for the building given its unsafe condition,” Ken Gavin, Director for Communication for the AOP, said. “Given these factors, the due diligence period involved with this potential transaction is a lengthy one.”
Details on the deal have been scarce to date, but there are a few points that are somewhat clear. According to Ken Weinstein, a developer that had been vying for the property, the original asking price for the church was $750,000, but noted that there was “always flexibility in the price.”
“As time went on and the neighborhood was successful with the historical designation, the AOP had no choice but to be more flexible with the price,” Weinstein said.
How flexible? At a community meeting last month, Chuck Valentine, a member of the Holy Name Parish Council, said that the last time he saw a copy of the Agreement of Sale, the final price for the church was $1.
“The costs of the structural repairs and subsequent finish repairs consistent with Historic Commission standards and requirements exceeds the value of the property within its present condition,” Valentine told Spirit News in a text. “You would not pay more for the building than what it is worth. No one in their right mind would.”
While there has been no word on Voloshin’s specific design plans for the church, he has maintained a level of communication with members of the community about his intentions.
“After completing the renovation of my office building at Paper Box Studios over in Kensington, I thought St. Laurentius might be something I would be interested in. I was also following along with the situation at the church,” Voloshin said. “Someone I have known for 8 years now, A.J. Thomson (of Save St. Laurentius) reached out to me a couple of times to take a look at [the church]. I thought it would be a shame to knock it down, so I wanted see if it could make sense to do something with it.”
Voloshin, while not originally from Fishtown, moved to the neighborhood in 2006 after starting Printfresh with his wife, Amy. Voloshin was born in Kiev, Ukraine and immigrated to America with his parents when he was 8 years old.
“We arrived with $700 for a family of five. My parents worked hard and got good jobs as computer programmers and I followed in their footsteps, landing a job right out of college in corporate America,” Voloshin said in a web posting on EO Philadelphia, a group focused on building and engaging entrepreneurs.
Voloshin plans on keeping the community closely involved throughout the St. Laurentius development process.
“I have spoken with A.J. [Thomson] and John Wisniewski and am taking their concerns, as well as the community’s, into account. I am keeping the church intact and believe in preserving old buildings,” Voloshin said. “But I am not about telling people what to think and I will let people make up their own minds about what is important to them.”
“He is respectful enough to know how treasured that building is to so many of us in this community,” Wisniewski said. “At the same time, he is enough of a community activist to understand what he needs to do to ease the minds of the people in Fishtown.”
John James Pron worked as historical architecture professor at Temple University for 37 years, specializing in the areas of historic preservation and adaptive reuse. He points to the importance of developers engaging with communities as early as possible, especially when it comes to buildings that have such a history and presence in the neighborhood.
“If [Voloshin] is serious, he should approach the community now, before any specific plans are even conceptualized,” Pron said. “Both [the developer and community] have a vested interest in this succeeding, but no one party will get 100 percent of their ideal [plan]. [It can’t be] us vs them, but rather both groups together.”
The proposed agreement of sale for the church still hinges on a few contingencies that could obstruct a final deal. The most obvious hurdle is the project’s financial viability. Voloshin wants to make it clear that he is in no way trying to maximize profits by purchasing St. Laurentius. He insists that he is more focused on facilitating a valuable return for the community at large.
“This is not really a lucrative deal for anybody, but it’s definitely not a charity. I am really looking to make an industry average rate of return in the real estate market with this deal,” Voloshin said. “And to be perfectly honest, that is the biggest challenge right now — figuring out a way to utilize the space in a way that does that.”
Creating an adaptive reuse of a historic building that fits the needs of the community while still being economically and structurally viable can be a daunting task for any developer. In an August 2015 story, Spirit News looked extensively into the precedent for adaptive in our community and beyond.
About 12 years ago, photographer Dominic Episcopo bought a former church in Fishtown at 1345 E. Susquehanna Avenue to use as both his home and studio workspace. This church had been under threat of demolition by another developer who at the time was also bidding for the property. Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?
“The owner had an offer from another developer who wanted to take it down and build 18 condos. But he came to me and said if you match their offer I’ll sell it to you because I know you are not going to take it down,” Episcopo said. “The owner was from the neighborhood so I don’t think he wanted to see [the church] taken down.”
Episcopo sees his home as only one example of adaptive reuse, but stresses that the use of his space is in no way economically comparable to the situation faced by Voloshin and the St. Laurentius building.
“The way I developed my church is not practical,” Episcopo said. “You could definitely make more money doing it another way just because of how much open space I have. I mean, I live in the sanctuary of the church and then I have two rental properties in there that completely cover my overhead. But [the payout] preserved the building, which is important to me and it accommodates my lifestyle.”
He added: “The situation at St. Laurentius is different because it’s more about about the bottom line. They will have to figure out the amount of units they need in the church in order to make a profit on a monthly basis.”
Even with the profit motive in mind, Episcopo underscores his conviction that the community would be wise give the adaptive reuse of the church as apartments a chance, especially given the current climate of demolition.
“It’s so hugely important to find new uses for old buildings. It just kills me that all these old buildings around the city are going down and being replaced with these shitty cardboard modern boxes,” Episcopo said. “There is a unique opportunity with the old buildings of Philadelphia, especially in Fishtown and Kensington.”
Older structures like St. Laurentius can also present concerns regarding their structural integrity. Richard Ortega was the structural engineer hired by SSL to provide an analysis of the church building.
“No matter how this building is adaptively reused, the biggest problem will be what to do about the towers because they have a flawed original design,” Ortega said. “But at the same time they are not critical to the function of the building. Of course now that [SSL] has gotten the building certified as historic by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, you can’t change the massing of the towers. So they are stuck with it.”
This inability to change structural elements of the church’s exterior due to its historic status may present challenges to any developer’s plan. Ortega suspects that the developer will also have to furnish the church with new foundations in order to support whatever new structures he wants to build inside the interior of the building.
“You don’t really want to disturb the existing foundations in that building. If they do disturb them, you have to figure out how to mitigate the disturbance,” Ortega said. “That’s not going to be an easy job and I’m not sure how one makes a profit doing it.”
Ortega would not speculate on the economic viability of this specific reuse, citing that he did not know the developer’s plan or level of experience. While the engineer maintains that adaptive reuse of the church as apartments is possible, he also says that many reuses can be just as costly as building from scratch and face a great number of hurdles.
“At one of the churches we are working on in Jersey City, we are on either the second or third developer because the first two went belly up trying to make it work,” Ortega said. “There are easier things to adaptively reuse as residences, like warehouse buildings or old hotels. Churches are a lot more difficult.”
Another potential obstacle will be Voloshin’s ability to obtain a zoning variance for the development. The developer has already reached out to members of the community to help gain their support for a variance, which would be required to switch the church’s current designation from single family use to multiple family use.
“I know I have the support of some of the people of Save St. Laurentius who want to prevent the building’s demolition,” Voloshin said.
According to Matt Karp, the Executive Vice Chair of the FNA’s Zoning Committee, there have been no formal rezoning proposals put forth for the St. Laurentius building to date.
“As far as I know, there is no formal proposal for this site and I have not heard anything formally about this project,” Karp said.
Karp did not sense that the developer would have a problem getting a variance for such a project, but noted that it would certainly help the process if he received strong community support.
“It is not ‘difficult’ [to received a variance] and the local public is reasonably well educated on these issues,” Karp said.
Karp did, however, provide some insight on issues that may arise during the potential zoning process.
“There will be density concerns and, of course, community concerns for how the building is preserved. Likely the density of units for any multi-family proposal will be the most scrutinized aspect by the community.”
While zoning decisions ultimately fall on the Zoning Board of Adjustments, community opinion could still play a role in whether or not the church obtains a variance and ultimately whether it continues to stand.
“If the community comes out against zoning and the zoning board turns down the developer’s request for a variance, the community may not get a second chance here,” Weinstein, a developer formerly bidding for the property said. “This church has been for sale for quite a while now and I don’t see a lot of people pounding down the door to develope it.”
Weinstein also notes that his experiences with zoning give him the impression that if the community shuts down one developer, often times others looking at the property tend to become discouraged and disinterested in the property.
“If the developer puts together a creative design that impedes on the community as little as possible, hopefully people will realize it is something they should accept,” Weinstein said. “The community should think long and hard before they oppose a plan that would save the church.”