Downtown revival plan hits a snag
A $100 million construction project seen as a salvation for Brockton’s faded downtown could be in jeopardy following a report that a former apparel factory at the center of the redevelopment plan is in danger of collapse and should be demolished.
The report by Churchill Engineering Inc. of Plymouth describes an asbestos-laden structure with a faulty roof that has been ravaged by weather and time, and a partial interior collapse that at any time could include the elevator shaft and central supports.
Churchill’s survey and structural assessment report of the 1890-era Gardner Building on Centre Street also details an exterior in danger of a cave-in that looms just feet from public roadways.
Urban redeveloper Trinity Financial of Boston had received Planning Board approval to convert a full city block bordered by Centre, Montello, and Main streets and Petronelli Way into 215 apartments, commercial space, retail businesses, and a 325-space parking garage. The Gardner Building at 62 Centre St. is meant to be the showcase at the center of the neighborhood rehab envisioned by Trinity, and company officials said this week they did not know yet how its potential loss would affect the plan.
The area is less than two blocks from commuter rail service, providing easy access to Boston and a way to rejuvenate a city center that in its heyday was a leader in shoe and other manufacturing efforts and now harbors empty storefronts and crime.
Trinity had received $600,000 in Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits to shore up the Gardner. The four-story, unreinforced brick building has steadily deteriorated over the two decades it has sat abandoned, according to James Casieri, Brockton building commissioner.
Casieri has given Trinity officials until July 1 to bring in a definitive plan to address the structural degradation or, he said, the Gardner must come down. City officials say razing the sprawling structure would cost about $400,000.
“I don’t want to be the deal-stopper here, but I can’t look at it through that lens,’’ Casieri said. “Public safety is number one.”
The Churchill engineering report’s executive summary just about rules out any effort to save the old building.
“The existing structure is considered dangerous and poses a significant hazard to life or limb to the general public,” the report said. “It is considered technically infeasible to effect repairs to make the building safe.”
Casieri has fenced off the building and closed the sidewalks to public access on Centre and Montello streets. A brick parapet that surrounded its signature flat roof was removed 2½ years ago after bricks began falling onto the street, he said.
The Churchill report warns that vehicle traffic should also be diverted to avoid possible falling debris.
“That proximity to the street is what makes it so difficult,’’ Casieri said. If the Gardner were in the center of a parking lot, for example, there would be room to work up supports and braces, he said. But being on top of the street on two sides makes such efforts impossible, he said.
Saving the Gardner will involve “extreme engineering,” Casieri added. And while anything is possible, he said, Trinity would have to provide “stamped, engineered drawings and show us their intent to restore the building.”
The Churchill report isn’t the first to say the Gardner should come down. A city inspection in 2010 also recommended demolition because of the threat to public safety.
At the time, Dedham-based Economic Development Finance Corp. had a $91 million redevelopment plan for the area but dropped it after the secretary of state’s office filed an administrative complaint alleging the company and its subsidiaries had swindled senior citizens out of more than $2 million by selling unsecured, risky promissory notes through an unregistered broker.
The building is still owned by Economic Development Finance Corp.’s president, David Rodriguez-Pinzon, Casieri said, but Trinity has signed a purchase-and-sale agreement.
Brockton Mayor Linda Balzotti, a proponent of revitalizing the downtown, has been working to fill storefronts with restaurants, retail outlets, and art galleries, among other lures, in an effort bring foot traffic back to the area. She said Trinity has made a significant investment in its project and thus far has shown no indication of wavering in its commitment.
About $50,000 has already been spent to bolster the facade of the Gardner, Casieri said.
“To date, they have worked with city officials to make sure this project is done safely and efficiently, and I expect nothing less moving forward,” Balzotti said.
Company officials say they will submit plans before the deadline and are as committed as ever to a proposal that centers on the decaying building.
“Saving the Gardner building is a big piece of the plan,’’ said project director Kenan Bigby. “We are trying to save the historic fabric of downtown Brockton.”
Obviously, Bigby said, the Churchill report presents a challenge that will require construction before closing on the property’s purchase. That’s a big leap of faith, he said, adding: “We have done a lot of historic renovation and rehab, including some projects in worse shape than this.
“Our history in dealing with these types of projects gives us a comfort level that others don’t have,’’ Bigby said. “We’ll just move one step at a time. This project is important to us.”
Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.