Northampton puts church demolition review on pause

  • St. John Cantius Church in Northampton. 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: 6/21/2021 8:52:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The committee responsible for deciding whether the historic St. John Cantius Church can be demolished will wait until a new member is appointed before taking up the controversial issue again.

Wayne Feiden, director of the Department of Planning and Sustainability, said Monday that the Central Business Architecture Committee has decided not to move forward yet on the St. John’s demolition permit application because only three members are able to vote on it.

Three of the five members have recused themselves from the issue due to conflicts of interest, and the committee has only one alternate member. A second alternate seat is empty. Three votes is the minimum allowed under the city’s administrative code in order for the committee to achieve a quorum.

“We were down to four eligible members for voting on anything related to St. John’s. However, one of these four has stepped down because she moved to the Cape,” said Senior Planner Carolyn Misch. “The committee could act with three, but they don’t want to, so they will wait until the slot is filled.”

O’Connell Development Group wants to demolish the century-old church at 10 Hawley St. to make way for five townhouses.

Committee Chairwoman Aelan Tierney is president of Kuhn Riddle Architects, which the Holyoke developer is using as the architect for the St. John’s project. Committee member Bridget Goggins’ real estate firm was involved in the sale. Both are recused.

Member Emily Wright, principal at Wright Ostermier Landscape Architects, is also recused, according to Tierney. Wright did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on Monday.

O’Connell’s application will be taken up at a future meeting on a date to be determined. No nominations have been submitted to the committee yet, Feiden said.

St. John’s boosters like Elaine Jandu hope the new committee member, when that person is appointed, will have a deep respect for the city’s history.

Rally planned

Advocates for saving and repurposing St. John Cantius will hold a rally on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Northampton Arts Center, 33 Hawley St., across from the church.

Organizers promise “fun for all with Polish jelly donuts (Paczki) and coffee,” and ask attendees to bring their ideas to reuse the building.

Jandu said the rally will feature a slideshow of possible reuse options and photos of the inside “to show that it’s a gorgeous building and it’s not falling apart.”

On April 6, the Central Business Architecture Committee denied O’Connell’s request for a demolition permit in a 3-1 vote and asked for more detailed drawings of the townhouses it wants to build on the site.

Pauline Fogel, who voted to deny the permit, has since left the committee. Vice Chairman Joseph Blumenthal was the lone vote for approving the permit; he remains a member, along with Robert Walker, who voted against approval but made the motion to ask for more drawings. The remaining alternate member, Melissa Frydio, also voted against the permit in April and asked for more details.

O’Connell submitted updated designs with a new permit application earlier this month, and said their nearly three-year effort to find a suitable reuse for St. John’s has cost $150,000 to date. In addition, O’Connell has appealed the denial of the permit to the Planning Board.

Jandu has gathered nearly 900 signatures on a Change.org petition calling for the church — built by Polish immigrants on Hawley Street and Phillips Place and dedicated in 1913 — to be spared.

“It’s just a gorgeous building. It’s like going to Europe,” Jandu said. “It just doesn’t make sense to tear it down.”

St. John’s 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.

Northampton’s Ward 3 Neighborhood Association is among the supporters of the repurposing effort.

“Making the right decision costs money and time,” the association wrote in a letter to the Central Business Architecture Committee prior to its April vote. “But a decision to allow this iconic building to be demolished would irrevocably change our ward, a loss that would last forever, and one that will not be repaired with the construction of more townhouses.”

O’Connell has argued that reusing the building is too expensive to be worthwhile, citing a cost of more than $1 million to restore St. John’s to “weathertight and minimally safe condition.” O’Connell Vice President Matthew Welter said the company analyzed several options that would spare the building, but none of them made economic sense.

Ward 3 City Councilor Jim Nash said that O’Connell promised to conduct due diligence on repurposing the building, and he thinks that process is incomplete.

“My job is to hold their feet to the fire on that promise,” said Nash. “Their contention that they’ve done due diligence, based on business projections run during the pandemic, is not fair.”

He said economic activity has ramped up, the local housing market is in good shape and “things are very vital downtown.”

Nash said the building could be turned into apartments or condos, offering tenants the chance to “have something like the Sistine Chapel over your head instead of some drywall.”

O’Connell has already demolished the old rectory and parish hall to make way for condos.

Nash said he and other neighbors would love for “a Rockefeller or a Vanderbilt” to buy the property from O’Connell and use it as a public music or arts venue.

“I don’t want to see O’Connell lose money,” Nash said. “I think they’re overestimating the cost of things here.”




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