Committee denies permit for St. John Cantius demolition

  • St. John Cantius Church. The O'Connell Development Group has applied for a permit to demolish the building on Hawley Street and Phillips Place. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/6/2021 9:51:16 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After a lengthy hearing Tuesday evening, the city’s Central Business Architecture Committee voted to deny a local developer’s permit application to demolish St. John Cantius Church.

The hearing was held to assess the application that the O’Connell Development Group of Holyoke has submitted to demolish the church — built in 1904 on Hawley Street and Phillips Place — and build townhouses on the property. After a lengthy presentation from the developer, as well as extensive public comment, the body voted 3-1 to deny the demolition until O’Connell comes back with more detailed drawings of the structures it intends to build on the site.

The church has sat vacant since 2010. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield sold the church to O’Connell last year for $1.26 million, and O’Connell submitted an application in early February for work on the property that includes the demolition of the old church.

Presenting new information to the committee, O’Connell Vice President Matthew Welter said that preserving the church would be a difficult financial proposition.

Welter said any restoration would likely be ineligible for some important tax credits, and that it would cost $1.05 million to restore the building to “weathertight and minimally safe condition.” He presented several reuse options the company had analyzed, saying that those options would not be economically feasible.

“We were unsuccessful based on the economic realities that came to the forefront,” he said of the efforts to find an appropriate reuse.

Welter also said that it would be difficult, if money was used to restore the building, to find tenants downtown.

Pat Goggins of Goggins Real Estate also spoke about the state of downtown, noting that seven restaurants have closed during the COVID-19 era and that vacancies are growing downtown.

A number of residents came to speak against the demolition, offering up alternatives and speaking to the historic and architectural significance of the church.

Jim Nash, the city councilor for Ward 3, where the church is located, said that $50,000 had been identified to help O’Connell find other uses for the building.

“I just really would hope that a developer, with all the money they’re making, with all the units on this property, could find it in their heart or conscience, to save an asset of civilization (rather) than creating more profit,” Tris Metcalfe said.

As the public hearing closed, committee members began debating whether O’Connell did its due diligence in showing that the building is structurally and functionally obsolete, which it would have to show in order to receive the permit.

Opinion on that question was split. Committee member Pauline Fogel said that other historic buildings in worse condition have been saved from demolition, and that the kind of structural damage O’Connell presented could be remedied.

“I think that this falls way short of being a building that is unusable or functionally or structurally obsolete,” Fogel said.

Committee member Robert Walker said he felt O’Connell’s estimated costs of restoring the building sounded “a little inflated.”

Walker, who made the motion to deny the permit until the developer presents more drawings, said it may not be financially feasible for O’Connell to restore the building. He said he worried the project might die, leading to the church rotting anyway.

Committee member Joseph Blumenthal was the lone vote against denying the permit.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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