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With St. Joseph Church one step from wrecking ball, Historic Salem, Inc. fights for the next call

Posted by Justin Rice  February 17, 2012 11:01 AM

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Like a basketball coach complaining about a perceived blown call in order to get leniency the next time around, Historic Salem, Inc. says it is fighting the federal review process of the St. Joseph Church in order to make sure the process runs more smoothly next time.

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.

“This process is important, it’s mandated by the federal government and anytime someone doesn’t follow it, it just chips at it for this project and for other projects,” Emily Udy of Historic Salem, Inc. said in an interview last night. “We’re trying to maintain the integrity of the process.”

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, known as a memorandum of agreement, to mitigate the loss of the church.

The state Department of Housing and Urban Development on Tuesday determined that alternatives for building the affordable housing project 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 memorandum of agreement.

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.

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.

The developer — the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, the nonprofit housing developer affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston — has maintained all along that it’s not feasible to  maintain the existing structure.

Historic Salem Inc. has argued 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.

“Obviously we are dissatisfied with the decision and the whole process has been a back and forth, they say, we say and we maintain our position of course,” Udy said.  

Udy said she’s not sure if Historic Salem, Inc. will sign the memorandum of agreement but she noted that the document doesn’t require a signature from concurring parties such as Historic Salem, Inc. and  the Salem Historic Commission in order for the project to move forward.

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 the memorandum of agreement.  

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.

While the Advisory Council oversees the 106 review process, it 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.

Udy said inviting the Advisory Council to join the process was not a stall tactic. She said their input was helpful and that they will most likely lend their expertise in drafting the memorandum of agreement.

“They joined the process because in looking at it they felt they needed to,” Udy noted. “Our goal with the [memorandum of agreement] is to get specific bench marks in there so in the future there are measurable ways to figure out if the MOA has been completed rather than it going back to we said they said.

“We want to make sure there are ways to measure compliance with the MOA.”

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

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