Tempers flared Tuesday night as those who made up a standing-room-only crowd argued for and against a proposal by an organization affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to demolish the St. Joseph's Church and convent and replace it with affordable housing.
The public hearing was called after six years of debate and four lawsuits on the . The mixed-use project with affordable housing and retail space is likely to move forward once federal and state agencies come up with an agreement with the developer to mitigate the loss of the structure, which sits on a site and in a neighborhood that has historic value in the eyes of some.
Moderator Paul Silverstone said the public hearing was the last event in the process, although he told the crowd they could still send him letters for about another week while he prepares his recommendations. He said he had no clear direction of where the community stands.
“There are several overlapping layers of gray here,” he said.
The crowd of about 75 people, which included Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and five city councilors, appeared evenly split between those who favored demolishing the church and convent building on Lafayette Street and those who wanted to find an alternative use for the 63-year-old vacant church that serves as a gateway to the Point neighborhood.
Church, Convent and School Closed Seven Years Ago.
The Archdiocese closed the church in 2004, which the mayor called “unfortunate,” a description speakers on both sides of the issue agreed with.
The church, the four-building site as a whole, and much of the surrounding neighborhood are considered historic enough to be eligible to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. In essence, Silverstone explained, the St. Joe's site is not on the historic registry, but it could be.
Therefore, before any federal funds are used, the Planning Office for Urban Affairs and the government agencies must agree on how to mitigate the loss of the building.
St. Joseph's has received more than $6 million in loans and tax credits from the state and federal government to develop family housing and retail space.
A few ideas for mitigation surfaced during the debate. One was the maintenance of the steeple, which speakers said could be seen for miles on land and sea. Another was the unearthing of a statue buried in the church parking lot, which prompted Ward 1 Councilor Robert McCarthy to question if the statue is so important. “Why did they bury it under the parking lot?" he asked.
A third was the preservation of the Cross.
Opponents of the plan to demolish the church argued that its international architectural style warranted preserving. A supporter of the demolition plan, James Rose, said the original church design, which was burned in the 1914 fire, was an architectural masterpiece and worthy of being saved to honor the French Canadian residents who helped build it. But he said the design of the current building is “ghastly” and should not be preserved.
Shirley Walker called the proposed new building wonderful and “a catalyst for change in the Point neighborhood.”
Lucy Corchado, a former city councilor, read a letter from Father John Sheridan, urging the demolition of the building and the replacement with a new mixed-use building. A church is about its people, not the structure itself, he said in his letter.
“This neighborhood has been neglected for too long,” Corchado said. “Let's move this project forward.”
Linda Locke, who owns several residential buildings in the Point, disagreed. She said, “It would be a great sorrow for the neighborhood” to lose the church building.
The Planning Office for Urban Affairs spent much of its presentation explaining why reuse of the church building would not work. Lisa Alberghini, president of the non-profit developer, said her group had contacted a variety of potential buyers or users for the church, and the few that responded decided against using the building.
Ed Bradford with The Architectural Team said studies of converting the building to apartments was not workable. The 44-foot wide church would have to have a new, more substantial foundation to support four floors of apartments that could be built in the 44-foot high former church. There would need to be new windows, he said. The exterior of the building is deteriorating and portions of the tower are peeling and the steel is rusting.
Renovating Church and Convent Called Expensive.
Alberghini said it would cost between $200 to $220 per square foot to retrofit the church into retail space and apartments. A new building could be built for $130 a square foot.
Citing their extensive experience in renovating and demolishing churches, Alberghini cited a success story with the renovation of St. Aiden in Brookline into 59 condominiums that sold for between $1 to $2 million each. St. Jean Baptiste church in Lynn was demolished and a new building constructed, she said, because it was not financially feasible to convert it.
Several opponents challenged the validity of the reuse study, which they said was several years old. An architect, Ed Nilsson, said he thought the project may not have considered alternative technologies to bring down the estimated building costs.
Bill Barlow questioned whether the developer was including any tax credits in the cost estimates.
The mayor, who supports the replacement of the church with a new building, noted that she tried and failed by one vote to get the council to approve her plan to use the building for a senior center and a mixed housing use.
Explaining that she came to support the developer's proposal reluctantly, Driscoll said, “This is not about tearing down a church. It is about rebuilding a neighborhood.”
Site a Strain on Police
Driscoll pointed to crime statistics from the police department that indicate the St. Joe's site has become crime ridden. Sgt. Harry Rocheville said there have been 825 calls to the about criminal activity at the site since the church was closed.
“This property has become a real strain on the police department,” Rocheville said.
Councilor-at-Large Joan Lovely, who opposes the demolition of the church, asked why the Catholic Church did not have a caretaker living on the site to help prevent vandalism and criminal activity.
“This building should be preserved. There should be a caretaker on site tomorrow,” Lovely said.
The developer's attorney, Ruth Silman with Nixon Peabody, bristled when one speaker tried to associate the developer with the priest pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church.
“POUA is not the archdiocese. It is not in charge of priests,” Silman said.
Several opponents questioned her statement that the developer is not part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
The developer's web site describes its relationship as “affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.” It redevelops or disposes of Catholic church owned properties that are now vacant and surplus.