But since the Norris Square Civic Association said it planned to build co-op housing on the site, a tense debate has emerged over how the church land — and the entire neighborhood — should be developed, with single-family housing or more rental units.
"We are a community that is torn apart," a woman said at a recent community meeting with Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez. "We are broken."
The debate also has exposed what some call a power struggle over who speaks for the area: Quinones-Sanchez, 43, who has proposed rezoning the area around the church to restrict multifamily housing; or Patricia DeCarlo, 67, a lawyer and executive director of the Norris Square Civic Association.
Many credit DeCarlo and the civic group with helping to revitalize the area by developing housing — both rental apartments and single-family homes — and cleaning up the park, once known as "Needle Park."
After days of negotiation over DeCarlo’s plans for the site, Quinones-Sanchez said Thursday that they had reached an agreement to eliminate the 15 co-op housing units, which many had worried would be converted to more rental housing, and replace them with eight single-family townhouses.
She said DeCarlo would move the co-op housing to the two Victorian mansions that now house the civic group’s administrative offices, on Susquehanna Avenue north of the square. Norris Square Civic already had planned to relocate its offices to a red-brick rectory, one of three still-standing former church-owned buildings on the St. Boniface campus. Norris Square Civic also plans to put a new community center and employment and training program inside the old St. Boniface community center and to expand an alternative high school now operating the old St. Bonnie parochial school.
DeCarlo and her group initially brought the conflict to light by protesting Quinones-Sanchez’s zoning bill, which they claimed would jeopardize $10 million in funding for the St. Boniface project.
They also claimed that Sanchez opposed the project because she lives across the street from the church campus.
"It’s throwing a monkey wrench into this and into the other projects we’re planning," DeCarlo said before the deal with Quinones-Sanchez was reached. "The community said a long time ago it wanted affordable housing there."
Quinones-Sanchez has denied that the zoning change is personal. "I’ve had many, many people tell me that they are tired of all the conversions of single-family homes into apartments," she said.
She said there are also complaints about a lack of parking in the area.
Quinones-Sanchez and DeCarlo have tangled over development before. In June 2007, before she was seated on City Council, Quinones-Sanchez said she had to negotiate with DeCarlo about land at Front and Berks that the Philadelphia School District wanted for the new Kensington CAPA High School. The civic group had bought the land from the city at a subsidized rate of about $500,000, but DeCarlo wanted to sell it for $3.9 million, Quinones-Sanchez said. Finally, they made a deal to pay the group $2.1 million and also pay to demolish the church.
There is still opposition to Quinones-Sanchez’s rezoning bill, which she delayed last week. Many residents were concerned that the rezoning bill would mean they could no longer convert their homes into one or two rental units, often for family members.
But Quinones-Sanchez said rezoning will perhaps slow down gentrification. By August, new zoning rules will "allow outside developers to come in here and buy your neighbor’s house and do whatever the hell they want to do," she said.
Many residents relocated to the neighborhood years ago after being priced out by gentrification in Spring Garden, Fairmount and Northern Liberties, and they fear they may soon be displaced again as development from nearby Fishtown spills into the area.
"This is going to become the next Rittenhouse Square," one woman said at Quinones-Sanchez’s community meeting at the West Kensington Ministry Church.
The meeting was about rezoning but included both critics and supporters of the civic association’s plans for St. Boniface.
Some said DeCarlo has made enormous contributions to the area, but added that Norris Square Civic has grown to become one of the largest landlords in the area.
She [DeCarlo] is queen of this throne here,” said Norma Blanco, who lives in the first home-ownership development the civic group built. "I’m not saying she has not done anything good, but she has imposed her vision and not taken into consideration other people’s visions of what this neighborhood should be."
But supporters said DeCarlo has been unwavering in her commitment to poor people. "Pat is passionate about providing housing for everyone," said one community worker.
Added Inez Ramos, a human-rights activist:
"Pat believes that development should benefit the people who are here first," Ramos said. "The problem with gentrification is that not only does it cause displacement, but it actually causes an erasure of the cultural and historical memory of communities that have struggled to improve themselves."
Contact Valerie Russ at 215-854-5987 or email@example.com.