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Salem Historical Commission declines to sign off on St. Joseph demolition

Posted by Justin Rice  February 29, 2012 12:07 PM

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Despite the fact that the Salem Historical Commission last night voted not to sign a legal agreement regarding the demolition of the St. Joseph Church, the document will nevertheless seal the fate 61-year-old church.

State officials concluded earlier this month that the plan to build 51 affordable housing units on  the 2-acre site on Lafayette Street can go forward as long as the stakeholders involved in the project can meet a legal requirement, known as a memorandum of agreement, or MOA, to mitigate the loss of the church.

That agreement  will have all the necessary local signatures by tomorrow’s deadline and the signatures it needs in Washington D.C. next week, according to Lisa Alberghini of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs — the nonprofit housing developer affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Alberghini said demolition could begin this spring.

The Salem Historical Commission and Historic Salem, Inc. — which also said this morning that it will not sign the document — are both considered concurring parties, meaning the deal can still be made without their blessings.

Historical Commission Chairwoman Jessica Herbert said her group didn’t sign the document because a clause was added to the MOA on Feb. 14 that gives the city or its designee an option to buy the rectory and school if another developer proposes their demolition after three years.

"That’s preposterous to think the city of Salem would be able to purchase those buildings," Herbert said during a telephone interview this morning.

The MOA requires the developer to try to find their own reuse for the rectory and school and market the rectory and school to another developer for a period of three years.  If after three years no use can be found for the buildings, the city will have the right to buy them if a developer is proposing to tear them down. If the city or its designee chooses not to or can't buy the buildings a developer could still tear them down.

"We're not three years down the road," City Planner Lynn Duncan said when asked to respond to Herbert's claim that the city would not be in a position to purchase the buildings.

Duncan also said that the right of refusal clause adds a layer of protection that would not be there otherwise because there would still be no preservation restriction in the MOA.

"Without that provision they could demolish those buildings tomorrow," Duncan said. "This ensures they will be maintained for at least three years."

Alberghini acknowledged that the city’s right of first refusal was added in the last few weeks but said that the intent of the document has more or less remained the same for about four months.

“We’ve been pretty clear all along that this is what we thought we could do,” Alberghini said during a telephone interview this morning.  “The fact they might have expected something different is a little surprising only because it’s been this way. For four months that’s what we’ve been saying.”

Alberghini said protecting the rectory and school from demolition with a deed restriction isn’t feasible because their lenders wouldn’t allow it as the property is collateral for their loan.

A federal historic review process known as a 106 review 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 agreement to mitigate the loss of the church includes installing plaques to honor the history of the site. Herbert said it was her understanding during negotiations that preserving the rectory and school were also part of mitigation efforts.

“For the past six months we have been working on wording for preservation provisions on the rectory and school," Herbert said, "but never was there ever a mention of the demolition of the rectory and the school as being any part of this project because they were maintaining them as mitigating measure for the demolition of the church and convent."

The process was delayed in December when the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation decided to join the consulting party that was tasked with negotiating the memorandum of agreement.

Alberghini said the developers have been spending on average $25,000 a month between taxes, insurance, interest on loan and maintenance to the property.

“The longer the process takes and the more spending you do on those things the less that is available to meet everyone’s objective, and I think that’s often what people don’t see,” she said. “It’s like shooting yourself in the foot.”

In order for the project to move forward the MOA has to be signed by the developer, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, the state's historic preservation officer, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the North Shore Home Consortium.

“It’s our expectation that the required signatures are all planning to sign on,” Alberghini said.

The Salem Historical Commission, Historic Salem Inc. and the Salem Planning Department are concurring parties that don’t have to sign for the project to move forward.

“It’s only symbolic because we have no rights to vote on any irregularity that might take place during the project,” Herbert said of her group not signing the MOA. “So there was no point for us to sign … because at the last minute they added provision for the demolition [of the church and rectory] after three years.”

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

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