Northampton council greenlights $500K in CPA money for St. John Cantius repairs


Staff Writer

Published: 10-08-2022 1:35 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council has allocated $500,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to the private owner of the vacant St. John Cantius Church, the historic 10 Hawley St. structure that is slated to become 10 units of market-rate housing.

The council’s 7-2 vote on Thursday came after several months of deliberation by city bodies who determined that preserving the church — built more than 100 years ago by Polish immigrants and empty since 2010 — was worth it even if it meant giving taxpayer money directly to O’Connell Development Corp., based in Holyoke.

The money, meant to repair the exterior masonry envelope and prevent further water seepage, comes with one string attached — a permanent historic preservation restriction, which will allow the Historical Commission authority approve any further work as long as the church remains standing. O’Connell had initially proposed a full demolition.

Councilors Alex Jarrett of Ward 5 and Rachel Maiore of Ward 7 voted against the spending. Some councilors who voted for the plan, including Vice President Karen Foster of Ward 2, said they did so despite their reservations about the use of the money and the cost of the housing units that are planned.

Maiore said she was “horrified” that anyone would buy the church and consider tearing it down. She said the arrangement does not feel like a public-private partnership, but rather a subsidy to save the building, and sends the wrong message about the council’s priorities.

“They knew it was a church when they bought it,” Maiore said. “I understand that O’Connell provides housing and tax revenue and growth in our city, but I think like anyone operating in our community, like really any human, they have a sacred responsibility to enhance the public history and beauty around them in their domain.”

City Council President James Nash of Ward 3, where the church is located, said he was in favor of a proposal that would have preserved the church as a restaurant, but “the financing part evaporated.” He said the majority of Northampton’s historic buildings have private owners and the city “desperately needs housing.”

“Yes, I wish that the outcome was different,” Ward 1 Councilor Stanley Moulton said before voting in favor. “I wish O’Connell had seen a way to provide some affordable housing among the 10 units they proposed for the church, but as others have said, market-rate housing is needed. … It’s not a solution that I will vote for enthusiastically.”

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Foster and Moulton said they had hoped O’Connell would accept an earlier offer from the city to buy the property for use as the long-planned Community Resilience Hub.

The repair project had won the support of the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) and the Historical Commission, but a neutral recommendation from the council’s community resources and finance subcommittees.

“We’re aware of all of the discomfort that exists about private development of this, but we feel that ship has sailed, essentially,” Brian Adams, chair of the CPC, told the council during the meeting’s public comment period. “This is a historic preservation project. It’s not an affordable housing project. The good news is that we have five projects before us this fall that are all affordable housing.”

According to the financial order, “The building is a contributing resource to the Pomeroy Terrace National Register Historic District, is important to the public for the enjoyment and appreciation of the City’s architectural, cultural and historical heritage, and its preservation serves a critical public purpose.”

Opponents have said that this project and others like it will contribute to higher housing prices and gentrified neighborhoods. Adams denied claims that the project would set a precedent of funding private development, saying that each application is considered on a case-by-case basis.

Debra Bercuvitz, a resident of Bay State Village, said she has “deep conflict” about the use of the money because the city did not conduct what she considers adequate due diligence.

“We hear that they can’t afford the $500,000, they need the public funds. I have not seen the books for the project and, I just want to say, it’s not just the church,” Bercuvitz said, pointing out the townhouses next door that O’Connell also built. “I think there’s a lot that needs to happen beforehand … We also have Massachusetts tax credits that they’re choosing not to avail themselves of.”

Defending the allocation, Lisa Szarkowski said she is descended from two Polish immigrants who arrived in Northampton in the 1890s and helped to build the church “by donating precious funding and their own labor” to the cause.

“Every brick of St. John Cantius was placed by the hands of immigrants who had made a treacherous journey to gamble on a new life in a new country,” Szarkowski said. “I hope you’ll see (the church) as a stunning manifestation of all the gratitude felt by Frank and Nellie and all the others who were given a chance to build a good life here in the city of Northampton.”

John Dunne, a church booster who previously said demolition would be a “sin,” also spoke in favor of the CPA allocation, which is funded from a 3% surtax on homeowners.

“All of us are the real recipients of the value of preservation of this building. Every single one of us in the city,” Dunne said, dismissing concerns about using public money for a private purpose. “It’s a well-established fact that private, for-profit investment is often needed to create public good. … It’s just simply the way we do things in this country.”

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