The oldest church in Belmont was demolished Monday morning, according to town officials and the developer who plans to build three duplex houses where it stood.
“It’s over. It’s pretty sad,” said Selectman Andy Rojas. “I’m sure [the developer] will build some nice houses on there, but it’s really not the same.”
The former First Congregational Church on Trapelo Road in Waverly Square was sold last month for $1.3 million to developer Edward Hovsepian, who had obtained a demolition permit from the town in December.
Hovsepian said he looked at the possibility of saving the church, and building housing units inside and behind the structure. But ultimately, he said, the structure needed too much work, and the lack of parking was too big an issue.
“It doesn’t make sense to keep it, and that was just the bottom line,” he said. “I don’t feel good about tearing down a church. No one feels good about that.”
Hovsepian said he is having plans drawn up for the duplexes, which he said will be sold as condominiums, and that he hopes to break ground on the project in the next five or six weeks.
Demolition started at around 8 a.m., said Hovsepian, and the church was completely demolished by about noon. Stained glass windows, pews, some furnishings, and light fixtures were sent to a salvage company, he said.
Residents were saddened by the loss of the church, which had stood at the heart of the square since 1870.
“I am more emotional than I even thought I would be today,” said Lisa Oteri, who grew up in Belmont and serves as a Town Meeting member. “I think it’s just a great loss.”
With the demolition of the church, she said, Belmont has lost a piece of its quaint New England charm.
“We’re just losing these wonderful reminders of architecture past,” she said. “We’re losing small houses, we’re being crowded out by oversized townhouses on small lots. I just feel like part of it could have been saved as a remembrance of a time past for Waverly Square. But I guess not.”
Rojas said that the town did make an effort to save the church, and that one individual approached Hovsepian about the prospect of buying it, but was turned down.
Hovsepian declined to comment on who approached him or what they offered, other than to say it was a town official.
Rojas said he was surprised that no members of the community picketed or otherwise acted to save the church. “The community, in a way, didn’t respond forcefully enough.”
The sale and demolition of the church has prompted drafting of bylaws by Belmont officials to provide some protection for historical buildings.
Michael Smith, chairman of the town’s Historic District Commission, said the commission will put a demolition-delay bylaw before Town Meeting in April that would temporarily halt the demolition of historic buildings to allow a search for other options. The Planning Board is also drafting a bylaw, according to the chairman, that would create incentives for developers to preserve historic buildings.
Hovsepian said town officials approached him about the Planning Board’s incentive bylaw, but it still has to be approved by Town Meeting, and the timing did not work.
Hovsepian said he understands why residents are upset, but the church went up for sale early last year, and no one made a move to buy it.
“If the citizens of the town were that concerned about the church, and they knew since last February it was for sale — there’s been plenty of time to do something about it,” he said.
The proposed bylaws, said Hovsepian, came too late.
“You have to understand, I paid for this,” said Hovsepian. “The timing — they’ve had years to get a demolition bylaw in place. They don’t do it.”
Rojas said that while the town did not step up to buy the church, the developer could have been more flexible and waited to see whether the bylaw proposed by the Planning Board passed at Town Meeting.
Oteri said that perhaps everyone in town bore some responsibility by not doing more to protect the church.
“Maybe we should have helped each other create a public outcry earlier in the process,” she said, “but I don’t know where the opportunity was lost.”