What can a neighborhood do when a long-time neighborhood anchor stands empty? St. Boniface Church served the Catholic community of West Kensington for over 130 years. The late nineteenth century church complex occupies an entire city block on Norris Square. Along with the once-majestic church building, the St. Boniface site also includes a rectory, convent, school, and gymnasium.
When the Diocese of Philadelphia closed the church in 2006, it was a shadow of its former self – scaffolding had been erected to prevent falling masonry from hitting churchgoers and the congregation had dwindled from its mid-century heyday. Today, the church is slated for demolition while the rest of the buildings vary in condition.
Norris Square Civic Association (NSCA), founded in 1984 to help revitalize the neighborhood, sees St. Boniface’s closing as both a challenge and an opportunity. Having the church complex stand empty ran counter to the NSCA’s efforts to revitalize the neighborhood. The community group purchased the site and enlisted the Collaborative’s help to determine how best to redevelop the footprint of the demolished church and the remaining structures.
The Collaborative assembled a team of volunteers to do the feasibility study.The team completed a code review, a proposed site plan, a historic preservation assessment, a review of the mechanical electrical and plumbing systems, and an estimate of probable cost for redeveloping the site. Given the scope of theproject, the Collaborative enlisted a relatively large team that included four architects, an architect/historic preservationist, renderer, electrical engineer and a cost estimator.
NSCA’s initial ideas for redeveloping St. Boniface centered around ten priorities, which were then reduced over the course of the project as the potential of the spaces became more apparent. According to Patricia DeCarlo, Executive Director of NSCA, their work with the Collaborative’s volunteer design professionals made “us think about what we were proposing, and how it wasn’t feasible. They opened our thinking to new possibilities.”
The team identified building and life safety code issues that ruled out several of the proposed uses and created an inventory of major and minor repairs to plumbing, electrical, and other building systems. Danny Rodriguez, NSCA’s Construction Supervisor and Cost Estimator, says that the Collaborative gave the NSCA a “sense of the scope of what’s to be done to bring the buildings back up to shape.” The feasibility study proposals retail and housing, improvements to the existing gymnasium that convert it into a true community center, and the continued use of the school as an educational facility.
So far, NSCA has raised about $15 million for the project via the city, state and federal grants. “The master plan and design gave us an additional tool in seeking funding” says DeCarlo. The NSCA already has board approval and will be presenting a final version of their master plan to the community in October. According to Rodriguez, the new center is “an exciting project that’s hopefully going to be of service for hundreds of years to come.”