Mayor Kim Driscoll met with representatives of the Planning Office of Urban Affairs, the Point Neighborhood Association and Historic Salem, Inc. at City Hall on Monday to sign a memorandum of understanding that clears the way for the Saint Joseph's Church in the Point Neighborhood to be demolished.
After more than seven years of back and forth discussions and litigation between the city, the Planning Office of Urban Affairs (POUA) and Historic Salem (HSI), the 64-year-old church across the street from the Lafayette Park near the intersection of Lafayette and Washington Streets will be torn down - along with the convent on site - in favor of a $20 million, 51-unit affordable housing complex.
"The Point Neighborhood Association has partnered this agreement along with the city and HSI that will enable us to halt any further legal action, allow the project to move forward as proposed...but most importantly allow the neighborhood to thrive and grow, which was initially behind this proposal to begin with," Mayor Driscoll said.
Photo by Ryan Mooney
As part of the agreement signed on Monday, HSI has chosen not to pursue any more delays or appeals to the proposed development, and POUA, the developer, has promised to work closely with the city, the Point Neighborhood Association and HSI to find potential re-use options for the two oldest buildings on the property - a school and rectory - which will be preserved.
Monday's agreement comes after three weeks of discussions and one face-to-face meeting with all parties following HSI's decision to suspend its appeal of POUA's attempt to find a viable way to move ahead with the development without demolishing the church. The process is mandatory for any developer using federal funds to develop a site that is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
"We're really excited, this is terrific," said Lisa Alberghini, president of POUA. "One of the exciting things about this is that the people of the city and the community came together and said it's time to move on...this effort here, when we all got together to talk, was really positive and productive, and things don't always happen that way."
Looming over negotiations was the possibility of losing all four buildings at the site had the proposal been dragged out much longer.
"We regret the loss of the church, but the two most important buildings, other than the church, we have a process now where we have a very good chance of saving them," said Sandy Dickson, president of HSI. "Everybody in the group is optimistic that we'll be able to do that."
Along with the affordable housing units, the new development will include retail and community space on the first floor. According to Lucy Corchado, president of the Point Neighborhood association, possible uses for the school and rectory include elderly housing, office suites and condominiums.
POUA will weigh their options in terms of developing the school and rectory, while also marketing the properties to buyers under the stipulation that the two structures are preserved.
"There are a number of options," Corchado said. "But it's open, too, if there's perspective buyers that will maintain the buildings there."
"We're all just sort of committing to preserve the school and rectory, and doing everything we can to make that happen," Alberghini said.
Alberghini expects finance closing on the site to be complete in the next six to eight weeks - the latter being the more realistic time frame - followed by on-site prep work, before any of the demolition work begins.
Contentious debate over the church's future has taken place ever since POUA purchased the property in 2005 and announced plans to develop it after the Archdiocese of Boston closed the parish the year before. The project, which has changed dramatically since then, has already been approved at city, state and federal levels, while fighting its way through numerous legal appeals.
"I've come to see litigation as not really that productive many times," said Neil Chayet, a high-profile, Boston-based lawyer most widely known for hosting the radio show Looking at the Law on WCBS Newsradio 880 in New York on Saturdays and Sundays. Mayor Driscoll praised Chayet as a neutral third-party instrumental in bringing everyone together and mediating discussions.
"It seems like here there might be another road where everybody could travel," he added. "And it seems like that's worked out."
Occasionally lost amid the nearly decade-long battle over the church's future was the city's poorest neighborhood, which will feel the direct affects of a new development on the vacant site.
"This is something that we've been wanting for such a long time," Corchado said. "We're looking forward to finally seeing some development going on there."