Feibush proposes his final version of Baptist Church site

The new version, which includes a drive aisle on Christian instead of Salter Street, received mixed views from the community.

Construction has still not broken ground yet at the site of the former Christian Street Baptist Church, as OCF Realty recently pitched their final proposal for the space. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Last week, Ori Feibush, president and founder of OCF Realty, pitched his final proposal for the site of the former Christian Street Baptist Church — a nearly year-long series of controversy surrounding the preservation, pushback and eventual demolition of the 19-century chapel in Bella Vista.

Feibush, who made efforts to convince both the Bella Vista Neighbors Association zoning committee and the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments on yet another version of plans to fill the vacant lot, handed the project off to another developer earlier this summer after entering a more than $1 million purchase agreement for the property last fall.

While both the new developer and settlement agreements have not been publicly announced, Feibush says the latest blueprints, which reflect requests made by Bella Vista neighbors in May, align with the interests of the succeeding buyer.

“We will not be the developer,” Feibush said to residents at last week’s BVNA meeting. “We’re taking one stab here at zoning, and then we’re out of the picture either way. … (The new developers) are supportive of this project if we get it approved. If we don’t, I tried.”

The new version features four 38-foot tall homes facing Salter Street, including two garages per home, with two homes on Christian Street, featuring one garage per home.

Although the new version is up to code regarding height, open air and other “use by right” elements, the project of six single-family homes calls for four use refusals — primarily to ensure a curb cut on Christian Street.

In the proposal, the Christian Street houses are unique as they feature a “drive aisle,” which serves a pathway for vehicles located on the ground level of the structure where the two Christian Street homes meet. This drive aisle allows vehicles to enter and exit from Christian Street to garages on the structure’s ground level.

In May, OCF presented a draft that included the drive aisle on Salter Street, which received an opposition vote of 44 to 0 among neighbors during the BVNA zoning meeting, leading to this new version.

Feibush stresses all four variances foster a “planned community” style of homes, encouraging homeowners to interact together with shared drive aisles, shared snow removal and other communal services.

Feibush says these refusals prevent subdividing this one parcel into five or six lots, which, aside from prolonging construction, also creates “worse conditions” for the community and the developers, as the homes could be more narrow while eliminating the adjoining part of the Christian Street homes, causing a “missing tooth.”

“I believe this is a project that’s befitting the character of the block,” he said. “There was a ton of time and energy taken listening to the feedback of many of the neighborhood who spoke actively, passionately about the concerns for their block. I hope many will look at these plans and see that they are substantially different than what we previously proposed and hopefully different to the betterment of your respective blocks.”

But the zoning committee explained other convenient advantages to avoiding subdivision.

“It’s for more cheaper and affordable to just call this a single-homeowner association development and totally avoid the subdivision process, because it’s complex, time-consuming and costly to do it,” said Larry Weintraub AIA, co-chair of BVNA’s zoning committee, at the BVNA meeting. “And even if he thinks he can get it done in four months, it’s still four months too many. For most investors, they want to get in and out as fast as possible.”

But, despite Feibush’s revisions, immediate residents are torn on the new plans, as, at the BVNA meeting, of those neighbors living within 250 feet of the property, 10 voted against, while four voted in favor. Of those living outside of this radius, four voted yes and four voted no. (This could be an inaccurate representation, as summer meetings receive lower attendance.)

Aside from preferring a curb cut on Christian Street rather than Salter Street, neighbors who support the plan feel waiting for a potential subdivision, which can take more than a year if this project is not approved by the ZBA, will lead to increased crime in the vacant space.

“We have a responsive drawing to our last meeting,” said resident Chris Pinto at the BVNA meeting. “I’m not saying for or against. What I’m saying is — we have to figure out how to move forward, because the longer we have an open lot, the more blight we have.”

Residents say they’ve seen trash, used condoms and evidence of drug use littering the shadow of the old church.

“This project has answered most or all of the questions that I thought the neighbors had versus the first version,” said resident Louis Cook at the ZBA hearing. “The opposition now seems more theoretical to me. … For those of us who really live right within the area surrounding this project, dragging it out and having a hole in the ground or a pile of bricks is going to be a hardship in itself.”

However, despite the relocation of the drive aisle, some residents still see it as a traffic hazard, especially considering Christian is a two-way thoroughfare, granting access to three schools in the immediate area, including Christopher Columbus Charter School, Academy at Palumbo and Moonstone Preschool, along with St. Paul’s Church.

In general, neighbors say in recent years, Bella Vista, which is home to major walking sites like the Italian Market, has compromised its pedestrian-friendly nature due to the increase of development.

“I personally have two small children. Unlike developers, I don’t leave a neighborhood immediately,” said Lara Rhame, co-chair of BVNA’s zoning committee, at the ZBA hearing. “I live right there. … Bella Vista is a historic walking neighborhood, and we have strong opposition to these continue drive aisles on Christian Street which are eroding that streetscape.”

In an extraordinary case, the zoning committee says the BVNA was not informed of the scheduled ZBA meeting regarding the refusals until 27 days prior to the hearing, even though, according the the committee, they should have received at least 45 days notice. Plus, the BVNA’s August zoning meetings, which are always held the first Tuesday of every month, happened to fall on the day before the Aug. 8 ZBA hearing. This hindered the association from drafting a standard letter of opposition or non-opposition, including a written statement from Councilman Mark Squilla.

However, when the BVNA asked the applicant for a continuance, Feibush and his attorney, Perry Liss, threatened the neighborhood association with legal action if they tried to impede the process in anyway, according to both parties.

“This is an obvious attempt to really jam this through,” Rhame said.

“It is correct that I insisted on presenting to the zoning board tomorrow,” Feibush said, at the BVNA meeting. “It’s also correct that my attorney sent a letter that he regrets — that I regretted as soon as I read it.”

However, at the ZBA hearing the next day, Feibush did request a two-week continuance from the ZBA until both the BVNA and Squilla provided letters to the board. If the board does not approve the variances, the development will face subdivision.

“(Feibush) owns the lot which he created by destroying a piece of property,” said resident Lawrence Lindsay, at the ZBA hearing. “Let him do something which benefits the neighborhood — is creative. There’s no reason for this board to bend over backwards to allow him to put as many big houses and garages as he can in this area.”