A rare chance in real estate

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced plans to lease or sell 45 acres of the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary campus that are nearest to City Avenue.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced plans to lease or sell 45 acres of the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary campus that are nearest to City Avenue. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

Plans to sell or lease part of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary would open a huge Main Line tract.

Posted: March 12, 2013

Joseph Miele sat in a living-room chair by the front window of his Lower Merion home and waved his hand toward St. Charles Borromeo Seminary across the street.

"We've been here since 1954," Miele, 86, said. "All my four boys growing up, we used the grounds for playing ball."

That was years ago. He might have been upset then if there were no open space, "but not now," he said.

Miele's serenity is just as well, considering the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's announcement last week that it would sell or lease the 45 acres of the 75-acre campus closest to City Avenue. The archdiocese plans to keep the remaining 30 acres, and the buildings on it, for the seminary. The college building is on the property that would be up for lease or sale.

Such immense pieces of land are rare in Lower Merion, an older, built-out township that bumps up against Philadelphia. They even more infrequently become available for development.

That makes developers excited and residents wary about what could come next near heavily traveled City Avenue between Wynnewood Road and Lancaster Avenue.

Miele and his wife, Lucia, 85, disagree about that future.

He likes the seminary's spacious, undeveloped vista. His wife said housing "wouldn't bother me - except it would be a lot more traffic. But, hey, this is a main thoroughfare. Things change."

They do, indeed.

Bishop Timothy, rector of St. Charles, said that in 1985, the seminary had about 160 resident students. Now, it has 128.

"It used to be you'd see them walking around," said James Warkulwiz, 24, who temporarily lives with his parents in the home where he grew up across from St. Charles.

By the time Warkulwiz was in high school, St. Charles was like "a ghost town. . . . People would say, 'Is anything going on there?' "

The answer is no for the college building, which Senior said is about 300,000 square feet. The entire building has to be maintained even though most of it is not being used.

Beth Mirzai, 31, won't criticize the seminary for selling or leasing part of its land.

The Mirzais live behind the seminary, in a development of single-family houses built in the 1980s when the archdiocese sold about 60 acres of its northwestern end.

"We wouldn't be here if, long ago, they hadn't sold land off," Mirzai said.

Kevin Michals is a principal with Cross Properties of Bala Cynwyd, which is turning nearby Eastern University's old Palmer Theological Seminary building into 132 apartments and about 14,000 square feet of office space. The company paid $9 million for the property. The project is set to break ground this week.

Would Michals be interested in St. Charles' 45 acres?

"I absolutely am, and I'm not really going to be the only one," Michals said. "I think it's one of the best pieces of land in the Main Line and, frankly, in the entire country."

He called the demographics of the area "off the chart." The surrounding population is affluent and the demand is great for luxury rental apartments in Lower Merion.

To turn the Palmer seminary into an apartment building, the lot had to be rezoned. Like St. Charles, the property was zoned for single-family residences in the beginning, with an exemption for religious and educational buildings.

In January, the township created a conversion ordinance to help make vacant churches appealing for redevelopment, said Robert E. Duncan, the township's building and planning director.

If a developer wanted to take the St. Charles college building and turn it into apartments, it would have to use that conversion rezoning. Otherwise, only single-family housing could be built.

Duncan said the land probably wouldn't be rezoned for commercial purposes.

Others look at the buildings and see a whole different potential.

"If this were a town in Europe," said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, "it would be a tourist attraction."

Contact Carolyn Davis

at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com,

or follow @carolyntweets on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Anthony Wood contributed to this article.


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