Northampton committee pushes pause on St. John church demolition decision

  • St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street in Northampton, seen in July. Visible at left are the Hawley Manor townhouses, under construction on the site of the church’s former rectory and parish hall. Gazette FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2021 7:52:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A decision on whether the historic St. John Cantius Church can be torn down to make way for five townhouses has been delayed at least three months, giving the committee weighing the issue more time to consider proposals from both sides of the contentious debate.

The Central Business Architecture Committee voted Tuesday to continue a public hearing on the proposed demolition of the church on Hawley Street. The unanimous vote to review the application again on Nov. 9 came after a presentation from the building’s owner, O’Connell Development Group of Holyoke, and a four-hour public hearing that drew comments from residents who argued that the church should be saved and reused.

“We’re very happy. We had a really tremendous turnout. I want to thank the public,” said Elaine Jandu, a member of the volunteer organization Friends of St. John Cantius, after the hearing. “We don’t want Northampton to look like every other city, like Boston. … What brings people to Northampton is the charm.”

O’Connell has said that making St. John’s suitable for reuse would cost more than $1 million, a figure that boosters of the repurposing effort argue is inflated. O’Connell said it spent $150,000 on finding a new use and found that demolition of the 1904 building — constructed by Polish immigrants and vacant since 2010 — is the most economical option.

Deborah Henson, chairwoman of Friends of St. John Cantius, said the group is working with an attorney and would appeal any approval of the demolition permit to the Planning Board. A private donation of $50,000 is available for the group’s work, and Henson said they offered to pay for an updated cost analysis on repurposing the church that considers post-pandemic economic conditions.

The developer bought the church last year from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield for $1.26 million. O’Connell said the building has about 6,400 square feet of rentable space, and if they turned it into nine units of housing, the monthly rent would need to be more than $4,300 in order for the company to break even on its investment.

Rent for a restaurant would be similarly unreasonable, according to the developer’s estimates.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Matthew Welter, development manager for O’Connell, said that there is “a sense of moisture and signs of mold” in the building, and there is “asbestos-containing material” in the basement. The church, he said, was designed only for religious observation.

“Unfortunately, we just have not found any other use that is reasonable,” said Welter.

In a letter to city planning officials, Northampton architect Tristram Metcalfe argued that the church “can be reused economically with significant profit” by turning it into an apartment building. Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, a historic preservation consultant in Turners Falls, reviewed Metcalfe’s plans and wrote to the committee that they are a more “realistic” estimate of the cost and profit potential than O’Connell’s numbers.

“People are interested in (reusing the building), despite O’Connell’s insistence that no one is interested,” said Henson.

Three Central Business Architecture Committee members are recused from considering the demolition permit because of conflicts of interest. The committee voted 3-1 in April to deny the permit and ask for more detailed drawings of the planned townhouses, but one of the voting members has since left the committee, leaving only three available to cast the final vote.

Three votes is the minimum allowed under the city’s administrative code in order for the committee to achieve a quorum.

“These Polish immigrants came here with nothing. Every single dime they had, they put into this church,” said Jandu. “It is ludicrous that only three members can vote to take down this magnificent structure, this landmark of Northampton.”

The committee has two members — vice chairman Joe Blumenthal and Robert Walker — and one alternate, Melissa Frydio, able to vote on the permit. Blumenthal was the only vote in favor of demolition in April, but voted with the others on Tuesday to continue the public hearing to Nov. 9. That hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

“Sometimes this committee has to make difficult decisions, and these decisions weigh on us heavily,” said chairwoman Aelan Tierney before Tuesday’s public hearing. She could not attend due to her recusal, and left the committee meeting after the first agenda item. “We volunteer our time to review potential projects in Northampton because we love this city and all we have to offer.”

The committee conducted a site visit of the church on Monday. The following day, Bill Kraus, a Connecticut developer, viewed the outside on behalf of the Friends of St. John Cantius. The group is hoping O’Connell will allow Kraus to go inside in the near future.

A similar townhouse project, called Hawley Manor, is under construction on the former site of the St. John’s rectory and parish hall.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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