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One hurdle left in timeline for demolition of St. Joseph in Salem

Posted by Justin Rice  February 16, 2012 11:47 AM

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An agreement that would pave the way for the demolition of the St. Joseph Church on Lafayette Street could be struck by the end of the month.

And Salem City Planner Lynn Duncan says the news comes just in the nick of time as  funding for the $1.1 million Lafayette Street redevelopment project could have been in jeopardy had the St. Joseph project gone on any longer.

State officials concluded earlier this week that the a plan to build 51 affordable housing units on the site of the 61-year-old church can go forward as long as the stakeholders involved in the project can meet a legal requirement to agree on how to mitigate the loss of the church that is eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places.

Duncan said the state Department of Housing and Urban Development on Tuesday determined that alternatives for building the housing within the existing structure of the church were not feasible. And now the interested parties have until next Wednesday to make final comments on the proposed mitigation and until Feb. 29 to decide whether they concur with the document.

“It’s critical, actually,” Duncan said of the new timeline.

She said certain aspects of the Lafayette Street development project can’t be completed until the St. Joseph project reaches a certain state and that the city was getting dangerously close to missing the deadline for spending the $1 million Department of Transportation and matching funds from a Community Development Block Grant.

“We have to expend the dollars before June 30,” Duncan said. “Our contractor can’t finish his work until the structure of the new building is done. We are obviously coordinating grade work. We don’t want to do work and have the sidewalk damaged by the construction they are doing.”

The Lafayette Street construction, which includes installing historic period pedestrian lights and traffic signals in an ornamental style at the Harbor and Dow street intersections, started in in September and was originally slated to be completed by the end of May.

The project includes installing new crosswalks and other safety improvements at what is one of the most dangerous intersections in the city for both pedestrians and vehicles.

Duncan also said the city was worried that the developer of the St. Joseph project -- the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, the nonprofit housing developer affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston – was going to pull out of the deal.  

“It costs the Planning Office of Urban Affairs money every day,” Duncan said. “They’ve been sticking it out. I think truthfully they were ready to walk, in which case the mayor and planning department were concerned that the site, which is zoned as downtown zoning, might see a branch bank with a drive-through.

“That type of development would not serve the neighborhood. It could’ve been a lost opportunity had it dragged on longer.”

The process was delayed in December when the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation decided to take a seat at the negotiation table.

In other words, the Advisory Council joined the consulting party that is tasked with negotiating a legal document called a memorandum of agreement that has to be inked by all members of the consulting parties before the church can be destroyed. The consulting parties include Historic Salem Inc. and the Planning Office for Urban Affairs and several state agencies.  

Historic Salem reached out to the federal agency the week before Thanksgiving, just before the state informed city officials that the Massachusetts Historical Commission approved the demolition of St. Joseph and its convent.

The Advisory 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.

But the Advisory Council doesn’t have the authority to override the state Department of Housing and Urban Development, which on Tuesday said  the proposed $20 million affordable-housing complex can move forward as long as the memorandum of agreement is signed.

That agreement to mitigate the loss of the church includes installing plaques to honor the history of the site and conditions for redeveloping the former rectory and school on the site.

Historic Salem Inc. has argued all along 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.

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.

“That block has been sort of left vacant for quite a while,” State Rep. John Keenan said during a telephone interview this morning. “I think it’s a critical piece, that entire corridor of the city and Point Neighborhood. To put residential and useful development there is helpful and certainly additional housing is good for the neighborhood too.

Keenan added, “I do want to see that [the church] is respected and remembered.”


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

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