Northampton offers $550K for St. John Cantius Church

  • 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. STAFF FILE PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/12/2021 7:42:37 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The city is offering to buy the vacant St. John Cantius Church at 10 Hawley St., which the current owner wants to demolish, in order to use the site for the planned Community Resilience Hub resource center.

In an Oct. 7 letter to O’Connell Development Group of Holyoke, the city’s director of planning and sustainability, Wayne Feiden, said the city would pay $550,000 for the building and the lot at the corner of Hawley Street and Phillips Place.

The offer is dependent on approval by the City Council and the outcome of due diligence measures including an environmental site assessment.

St. John Cantius and four other churches in Northampton were consolidated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield in 2010 to form St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish. The diocese sold St. John’s to O’Connell last year for $1.26 million.

The developer has argued against reusing the building, saying it would cost $1 million to restore it. Supporters of saving the church have said that estimate is too high.

Demolition permit under review

O’Connell is seeking a permit from the Central Business Architecture Committee to demolish St. John Cantius, which depends on the committee determining that the church is structurally or functionally obsolete.

The developer wants to tear down the century-old church and build five townhomes on the site; a similar project called Hawley Manor is under construction next door on the former site of the St. John’s rectory and parish hall.

In his letter, addressed to O’Connell’s vice president of development, Matthew Welter, Feiden said that obtaining a demolition permit is “very uncertain” because “we do not believe the church structurally or functionally obsolete.”

The Central Business Architecture Committee is set to meet again on Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. Three committee members are recused from considering the demolition permit because of conflicts of interest, leaving three members to vote.

Hub ‘a top priority’

Mayor David Narkewicz on Tuesday said that the Community Resilience Hub is “a top priority project that we’ve been working to assemble funding for and also to find a location to house it, in and around the downtown area.” The hub would support residents who face chronic and acute stress, such as those who are homeless and act as an emergency center in case of a disaster.

The city had explored using the historic Roundhouse building at 244 Main St., behind Pulaski Park, but Narkewicz said there are “ongoing environmental issues that have not been resolved” related to the building’s former use as a storage facility for coal gas.

The $550,000 to buy St. John Cantius would come from money that has already been allocated or donated for the resilience hub, Narkewicz said.

Feiden’s letter states that the purchase offer is valid for 14 days from the date of the letter, which was last Thursday, but that time frame is “extendable if we are making progress.” As of Tuesday afternoon, Narkewicz said that O’Connell has not responded to the letter.

“We would not need a financing or permit contingency. We almost certainly can move much faster than any private sector offer,” Feiden wrote, adding that selling to the city “saves you the cost of demolition, preserves the Phillips Place parking lot in your ownership to provide future development options and, because we will fix the building envelope if we purchased the property, you would not have to have a decaying building as your neighbor.”

Another proposal

As of Tuesday, more than 1,500 people have signed a Change.org petition, started by boosters of the church, that calls for repurposing the building. An anonymous donor gave $50,000 to the Friends of St. John Cantius for its efforts to preserve the church and find a new use.

Deborah Henson, chairwoman of the Friends of St. John Cantius, said the group hired Bill Kraus, a Connecticut developer with a preference for historical preservation, to develop plans for a new use. Henson said Kraus put together a “top-notch” team of professionals who proposed a two-story development that would provide living and studio space to artists.

“Basically, there would be nine of these units that would be pretty affordable,” Henson said, adding that the group wants O’Connell to withdraw their demolition permit and agree to build Kraus’ proposal. “They would be real heroes if they gave us the parking lot, too.”

The group is “trying to do a public awareness media blitz” before the Nov. 9 demolition permit hearing. Some of the donated money is being used to buy social media ads and yard signs promoting the repurposing effort.

“With the city’s offer showing that the church is usable … this is going to put more pressure on them if they don’t want the resilience hub next to their condos,” Henson said. “This could be a great deal.”

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


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