As we've seen in Philadelphia over the last few years, planning has the power to bring communities together. A community planning process for each closing property can identify needs in the neighborhood and possible re-uses, as well as provide parameters for redevelopment, welcome guidelines that will create certainty for developers.
The city is rich with organizations experienced in this sort of process: Partners for Sacred Spaces helps communities and organizations envision creative uses for religious buildings; the Community Design Collaborative has helped many community organizations develop plans for nascent assets; PennPraxis uses the resources of the University of Pennsylvania to engage citizens and create visions for solving problems. The archdiocese also has great in-house experience in reusing school buildings to create senior housing at St. John Neumann in South Philadelphia and Nativity BVM in Port Richmond.
Reuse takes imagination, patience, and resolve. Successful projects will have common characteristics:
Leadership committed to the project for the long haul.
Community engagement and support.
The will to follow up on ideas generated in a planning process.
The ability to create or partner with an organization (likely a nonprofit) to manage the property.
Patience in identifying resources or developers who recognize the opportunity and respect the community's intention.
These buildings can accommodate a mix of uses, often in concert, including: housing, artists' studios, theaters, community groups, training programs, commercial development, and neighborhood meeting spaces, as well as continuing to serve as schools for other institutions.
As with many urban problems, preservation of dormant religious buildings has been on the horizon for years, and we know there will only be more and more of these assets threatened as schools are closed and parishes are consolidated. Experience tells us that without a plan, these onetime community anchors can fall into ruin.
The Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street is an example of a building abandoned by the archdiocese without enough thought given to whether another organization could care for it. Siloam, a nonprofit with an admirable mission but without the capacity to maintain the church, is now petitioning the courts for permission to demolish it.
These structures are the bones of a vibrant city, a necessity as Philadelphia struggles to maintain a fabric that makes it attractive to newcomers and different from the suburban-style cities it competes with for talent. The archdiocese and parish leaders should work with our local design community, neighborhood groups, and the City Planning Commission to leverage resources and find solutions.
It's important to remember that our city is, in a way, blessed to have these problems: beautiful buildings with communities that love them. We shouldn't let that opportunity crumble.
Michael Greenle is a Philadelphia native and communications consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.