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Historic Salem, Inc. hopes federal agency can help stop demolition of St. Joseph Church

Posted by Justin Rice  December 1, 2011 10:26 PM

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While St. Joseph Church could be demolished early in the New Year, preservationists hoping to save the church are holding their breath that a federal agency will ride to the rescue.

Emily Udy of the independent preservation organization, Historic Salem Inc., said the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation could intervene as early as today.

Udy's hope was made all the more urgent this week when the state informed city officials that the Massachusetts Historical Commission approved the demolition of St. Joseph and its convent. The decision clears the path for the proposed $20 million affordable-housing complex being developed by the nonprofit housing developer affiliated with the Archdiocese — the Planning office of Urban for Urban Affairs.

That state’s decision means that the only thing standing in the way of the bulldozer is the consulting parties coming to an agreement on ways to mitigate the demolition of the church in a legal document known as a memorandum of understanding.

“They have the ability to join the consulting party,” Udy said of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “It’s not entirely clear if they could do anything [to save the church]. The process of drafting a memorandum of agreement would probably take at least the rest of the month. Nothing can happen until it’s signed.

“We have a little bit of time.”

Udy and her organization sent a letter to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on Nov. 18 asking for support in their effort to prevent the demolition of the 61-year-old church.

The Council oversees the federal historic review process that was triggered because the church campus and the surrounding neighborhood are eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places and because the proposed project would also receive some federal funding. That historical review process is known as a 106 review.

“We believe the 106 process was inadequate and incomplete,” Udy said. “It’s important it works. It’s what protects a lot of our historic buildings. We’re disappointed in how it worked out.”

Lisa B. Alberghini, president of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, said none of their projects that have undergone the 106 process have been halted by the federal government.

“We have taken many developments through the 106 process, including complicated ones, and we’ve never seen [the federal government] come in like that,” she said. “The process is happening the way it’s supposed to happen. The process can never meet everyone’s objectives, but I think over the four months [of the 106 review] we’ve made good progress to satisfy as many of the parties as possible.

“I think the fact that it’s moving forward means people really believe we have looked at everything that can be done and this is the best path.”

The buildings have fallen into disrepair since it was closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2004.A four-year legal challenge finally settled last summer further hindered the church’s state of repair.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Salem’s Director of Planning, Lynn Duncan, said of the state's decision to allow the demolition. “It’s a catalytic project to a key location that connects downtown to the Point Neighborhood. It’s a gateway to the city of Salem’s downtown. The site now is vacant and unutilized. It’s become a blight.

“The development will fit into the neighborhood from an architectural perspective and provide badly needed affordable housing.”

Historic Salem Inc. argues that the developers have not taken a serious look at developing the site without tearing down the current structure.  They say that it is not only technically feasible but also financially feasible to restore the existing structures with affordable housing.

Historic Salem Inc., whose own proposal to develop the existing structure into affordable housing was shot down by the developer in October, says that the developer hasn't been truthful about how much the new construction will cost per square foot.

Udy said while the developers said it would cost $130 per square foot at a Sept. 6 meeting, documents Historic Salem, Inc. obtained through a Freedom of Information request show the cost would be $155 per square foot.

“And that’s in line with our costs,” Udy said of their proposal to convert the existing building into housing.

Alberghini says the $130 figure is the cost of just the new building and the $155 per square foot figure includes other site work such as demolition, excavation and removal of hazardous material. She also said the cost of redeveloping the existing church would be closer to $200 per square foot, not including the costs associated with designing and starting a new project from “scratch.”  

“Even if it was financially feasible the reuse of the church would change the historic features of the character of the building,” said Alberghini, reiterating a finding made by the state recently. “The impact would be so adverse it would not make sense to do that."

But Udy maintains that the existing building could be restored without jeopardizing its historic status.

“There’s always a chance,” she said of the church being saved. “We’re not throwing in the towel. Until the wrecking ball shows up we’re not going to say it will be demolished.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.

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