Mar 14, 2014

Fate of North Adams church still uncertain



\By Father Bill Pomerleau
(Photos by Gillian Jones)


SPRINGFIELD – Five years after the final Mass was celebrated, the fate of the former St. Francis of Assisi Church and property in North Adams remains uncertain after Mayor Richard Alcombright balked at a plan by a pharmacy chain to preserve part of its 150-year-old church steeple as part of a commercial development.

Meanwhile, the future of the development, which was expected to bring dozens of jobs and an estimated $120,000-$140,000 in annual property tax revenue to the financially stressed city, remains in doubt.

Alcombright told iobserve that he wrote to CVS-Caremark president Larry Merlo in February to see if the chain, which wants to relocate its North Adams drugstore to a more central location, would “get together to save the steeple and the façade” of the former St. Francis Church. Bob Marcello, a senior vice president for CVS, called back, and arranged for company officials to meet with the mayor and tour possible store locations on March 6.

Berkshire County media reported Feb. 28, that an email was sent by CVS director of public relations Michael DeAngelis to Joseph Smith, a local activist trying to prevent the demolition of St. Francis. DeAnglis wrote that the company “will not be pursuing a store location at the site of this church.”

Alcombright confirmed the veracity of the email to local media later that day. He said that he had personally spoken to a CVS executive he declined to identify, who said that the proposed deal between his company and the Diocese of Springfield was off, which diocesan spokesperson Mark E. Dupont confirmed.

St. Francis closed in December 2008 when its congregation became a part of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish. After determining that the property was no longer needed for the merged parish, it issued a call for offers in February 2010.

Initial interest came from a developer with CVS as a tenant. They proposed 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.

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 diocese 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 city officials 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 offer 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 the museum group failed to finalize its plans three months later, the diocese voluntarily kept the property off the market.

When another 18 months of repeated extensions and increases in deposits resulted in no final commitment from the buyer, the diocese informed Alcombright during a January 2012 meeting that  the overdue contract was null and void.

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, a diocesan representative again met with the mayor 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. That did not happen.

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. The company did offer to preserve part of the steeple on a portion of the parcel that would be donated to the city or parish. After initially signaling to diocesan representatives his approval, Alcombright suddenly withdrew his support.

“This has been a perplexing situation dealing with the mayor,” commented Dupont. “The diocese and parish have made numerous considerations, given the sensitivity towards the former church building, even at one point having a potential buyer for the whole lot willing to donate the church parcel back to the city of North Adams or some other nonprofit.

“But each time the mayor could not facilitate the deal and the options became more limited, and yet he still is actively blocking a development that would financially benefit this economically challenged community,” Dupont said.

But the mayor’s opposition may be changing. On March 4, Alcombright told iobserve that he intended to discuss the possibility of relocating the pharmacy to the St. Francis site at his upcoming meeting with CVS.

“I don’t like it,” Alcombright said, suggesting that CVS should instead use the front portions of the church building itself, or preserve much of its façade, to house its business.

In his first interview with observe, Alcombright was asked specifically what he intended to say to CVS if the company said it intended to build its store with the steeple on the corner of the site.

“I will tell them that’s not good enough,” Alcombright said.

The mayor said that he wants the parish to be relieved of the burden of the St. Francis property, which would need $1.2 million in structural repairs if they had not closed. But he told iobserve that he still wants to preserve the “City of Steeples” skyline in downtown North Adams. 

Alcombright said he wants the city to apply for a grant, possibly from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to study “creative reuse” of St. Francis. But he conceded that he now has no firm proposals for the building to present to the diocese.

In his observe interview, Alcombright conceded that the proposal to establish a religious museum at St. Francis was always difficult to accomplish. He noted that the idea was originally developed for Notre Dame du Sacre Coeur Church, which closed in 2006.

Former mayor John Barrett persuaded city officials to purchase Notre Dame in order to prevent its demolition. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts uses the former parish rectory for offices, but the city has been unable to secure tenants for the former church or school, Alcombright said.

“Contrary to what some people might think around here, I don’t have all the power in this situation,” he added. “If CVS or the diocese applies for a demolition permit, they’ll have to go before the historical commission, and then the planning board. They decide these things.”

Dupont disputes this, asserting that, while trying to respond to an offer brought by the mayor to the diocese, Alcombright also was leading the effort to create the demolition delay provision.

“While putting offers in front of us, he used that time to further throw more roadblocks in the parish’s way,” said Dupont.

Under the recently enacted city ordinance, owners of property deemed historical in North Adams can be subjected to up to a one-year demolition delay. In addition, before they start that clock, they must receive all other permits, which diocesan officials say is an expensive proposition.

The state law enabling municipalities to order demolition delays is designed to prevent property owners from precipitously tearing down historic structures. The delays, which range from six months to a year in different communities, are designed to publicize the fact that a historic building is in danger of demolition, and allow interested parties time to develop an alternative use plan.

It’s unclear whether North Adams can force another year’s delay in redeveloping the St. Francis property while taxing the vacant church, given that it has been actively involved in unsuccessful efforts to reuse St. Francis for six years.

In a March 6 interview with iobserve, Alcombright said he had toured different commercial sites with CVS officials the previous day. None were acceptable to the company. “They were either too small or not in a prominent location,” he said.

The mayor said he then asked the pharmacy chain to reconsider the St. Francis parcel. “They didn’t say no,” he reported.

What will happen next is still unclear. The Diocese of Springfield generally does not discuss real estate negotiations until they are completed. Dupont did confirm that the diocese was about to apply for a demolition permit at the St. Francis site when the most recent proposal was withdrawn. He said that a structural problem with a walkway connecting the former church to its former rectory has worsened, and that, if nothing else, must be addressed soon.

He declined comment on whether the diocese will now try to clear the entire St. Francis site and then remarket it. 

As recent pictures provided to iobserve indicate, the church building is now a shell of its former self. Much of its interior has long been removed for safekeeping and, in most cases, reuse in other churches. 

“It’s a shame,” said Dupont. “If city officials had gotten behind the earlier proposal, they could have had both the church preserved and an important new development generating tax revenue. It just leaves you wondering what the motivation was.”