Feb 15, 2014

North Adams church may be headed for demolition


 


REGIONAL

By Father Bill Pomerleau
(Iobserve file photos)

SPRINGFIELD – A six-year saga concerning the future of the former St. Francis of Assisi Church in North Adams appeared to be reaching its conclusion this week as city officials and local residents again failed to broker an alternative to its demolition.

The 150-year-old church, which closed in December 2008 when its congregation became a part of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish, is apparently about to be sold to CVS Caremark, which plans to build a pharmacy on its site, according to Berkshire news outlets.

An online petition to protest the probable razing of the church, organized by local artist Joshua Field, has attracted 1,500 electronic signatures on the website change.org, and T-shirts with a “Save our Steeples” slogan have been sold in recent months. But no one has been able to finalize a concrete plan that would reuse all or part of the church.

The elaborate discussion about St. Francis became public last May in a letter St. Elizabeth’s pastor, Father William Cyr, released to his parishioners. (The complete text of the letter can be found following this article.)

“Shortly after St. Francis closed on the First Sunday of Advent, 2008, the process of evaluating the property to create a marketing plan was begun, leading to a call for offers in February 2010.

“Initial interest came from a developer with CVS as a tenant. They envisioned acquiring the entire lot, and clearing it for construction. At about the same time another group, with local ties, expressed interest in acquiring the church for a religious museum,” Father Cyr wrote in his letter.

Efforts then shifted to a compromise plan which would raze the parish’s rectory for the drugstore, but preserve the church, which would be donated to the nonprofit museum developers. Colebrook Realty, which represents the church in real estate transactions, developed a plan that would have CVS acquire the non-church portion of the parish property and an adjacent former insurance building owned by Hoosac Bank. The only missing component of that plan was parking for the museum.

When church representatives met with Mayor Richard Alcombright in April 2010, to see if the museum could have part-time use of a nearby municipal parking, city officials asked if the diocese would instead consider another plan: purchase of the entire church site for a price close to the CVS within 90 days, and a guarantee that the museum would face no zoning obstacles.

The diocese signed a preliminary agreement to transfer the property to the museum planners, and when it failed to finalize its plans three months later, the diocese voluntarily kept the property off the market.

“Over the following months regular communications with the buyer’s representative was maintained and we were assured of progress in obtaining funding commitments. However, repeated extensions and increases in deposits resulted in no final commitment from the buyer and in a January 2012 meeting, the mayor was informed that the overdue contract was null and void,” Father Cyr explained in his letter.

Colebrook issued a new call for offers on the property in March 2012. While others expressed interest in the property, only one made a firm offer: a developer associated with CVS. 

Before accepting the offer, diocese representative again met with Mayor Alcombright to tell him of its plans. Alcombright then called Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell, assuring him that within 30 to 60 days, financing for the alternative purchase could be secured.

While the diocese again delayed the sale of its property, the mayor convinced the North Adams City Council to pass an ordinance requiring a one-year demolition delay for structures more than 50 years old considered historical.

Earlier this year, CVS again made an offer to the diocese. Since the insurance building was no longer available, it proposed acquiring all the parish property, and tearing down the church.

“However, understanding the emotional issues surrounding such an action, they came up with a novel concept to preserve some aspects of the church on a small portion of the land and donate that to the city or parish. I have seen the plans and can say that it would 'dress' up the corner even though it is far, far less than we would have gotten a couple of years ago had we been able to take the very first offer,” wrote Father Cyr.

After indicating some openness to the latest plan at yet another meeting with the diocese, Alcombright a week later indicated that he would not support it. The mayor conceded that he had no alternative to leaving the former church, which needs $1.2 million in structural repairs and is taxed for $30,000 a year, vacant.

Citing “several sources,” The Berkshire Eagle reported Feb. 12 that CVS will soon apply for a demolition permit, although the newspaper could not confirm that the church property is about to be sold.

Diocesan policy generally keeps the details of real estate transactions private until they are finalized.

Asked for comment diocesan spokesman Mark E. Dupont said, "All I can say is that we are in negotiations with an interested party, and that the city had multiple opportunities to be a constructive part of this process going back five years and they never could bring a viable plan to fruition. The parish community needs to plan for its future without government interference.”

The complete text of Father Cyr's letter follows:

Parish of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
70 Marshall Street, P. 0. Box 868, North Adams, MA 01247

Dear Parishioners,

I hope each of you is well and enjoying this Easter season. I am writing you this letter today regarding the status of the St. Francis property. It has been my deepest wish to address this matter only when I could announce a successful outcome, but increasingly questions are being raised. What follows is my best representation on what has transpired in the last 4½ years.

As you may know, the diocese oversees all real estate transactions on the behalf of parishes using the services of a commercial real estate broker, Colebrook Realty Services. This provides us with the expertise and knowledge involved in the real estate market. Shortly after St. Francis closed on the First Sunday of Advent, 2008, the process of evaluating the property to create a marketing plan was begun, leading to a call for offers in February 2010.

Initial interest came from a developer with CVS as a tenant. They envisioned acquiring the entire lot, and clearing it for construction. At about the same time another group, with local ties, expressed interest in acquiring the church for a religious museum.

As a compromise, Colebrook worked with CVS and its developer to redesign a plan that would save the church portion of the site by taking the former insurance building owned by the Hoosac Bank and developing the lot in that direction. The solution was not optimal to CVS but was acceptable.  The church could then be donated to the museum non-profit group. The only missing component was parking to support the museum.

A meeting was held in April 2010 with the mayor to see if part time use of the adjacent city controlled parking could be arranged. In the course of this meeting city officials asked if we would consider an offer close in value to that of CVS that would close within 90 days and required no contingency for zoning or other approvals. Since that represented a better offer, with fewer potential complications, this proposal was accepted and a contract signed.

Over the following months regular communications with the buyer’s representative was maintained and we were assured of progress in obtaining funding commitments. However, repeated extensions and increases in deposits resulted in no final commitment from the buyer and in a January 2012 meeting, the mayor was informed that the overdue contract was null and void.

Colebrook again issued a new call for offers in March 2012. While potential purchasers (including one forwarded by the mayor) were identified and interviewed, only one offer surfaced, again by a developer associated with CVS. Prior to accepting this offer, as a courtesy, we again met with the mayor to inform him of the decision.

Following this meeting, he contacted Bishop McDonnell and asked for a delay. He assured the diocese that all he needed was another 30 to 60 days to put the funding in place to allow a local developer to acquire the property. Unfortunately, yet again, no offer was made within the 60 days.

During the time of the extension, however, the mayor quickly had drawn up and city council passed an ordinance delaying demolition of any “historic building” which, as he has admitted, was aimed at the former St. Francis Property. Therefore the effect of this second period of cooperation was for the city to add yet another level of difficulty to any plan to redevelop the St. Francis property. 

Recently, CVS re-started this discussion with a new offer. This came after months of conversations on the various obstacles faced by the reluctance of city officials to work cooperatively to find a resolution. Although I cannot go into detail about the particulars of the CVS proposal, because the insurance building is no longer available it was clear they now needed to acquire the entire property and demolish the church. However, understanding the emotional issues surrounding such an action, they came up with a novel concept to preserve some aspects of the church on a small portion of the land and donate that to the city or parish. I have seen the plans and can say that it would "dress" up the corner even though it is far, far less than we would have gotten a couple of years ago had we been able to take the very first offer.

Two weeks ago I attended a meeting with Jack Dill of Colebrook, a representative of CVS, Deacon Bruce and Mayor Alcombright. While no one was "jumping for joy"there was general agreement that what was proposed was the best we could get considering the missed opportunities of a few years ago. The mayor liked the general proposal though he had some reservations as did I. However, to all of our great disappointment, a week later he informed us that he would not support the plan. When asked about an alternative proposal he responded that he did not have any.

So,once again we have run into the proverbial brick wall. We continue to pay over $30,000 in property taxes annually. Each year we get closer and closer to insolvency. City officials seem content to see the status quo continue while they tax us. To say the least I have grown frustrated and even angry at what has, or better yet, what has NOT transpired.

So, I now turn to you and your collective wisdom as I have often done in the past. What suggestions might you have? What do you think we ought to do? Communicate your ideas and thoughts to me, to Deacon Bruce, to the members of the Pastoral and Financial Councils and to your elective representatives in the city who are supposed to represent your best interests.

It is time to bring this matter into the public forum here in North Adams and that is why I am writing you today.  The very future of our parish depends on a successful outcome to our current challenge!

Yours ever in Christ,
(Rev.) William F. Cyr