Church cohousing could cost $12.5m

March 5, 2010
By

John Ruch

HYDE SQ.—Stony Brook Cohousing’s plan to turn the former Blessed Sacrament Church into semi-communal condos could cost around $12.5 million, the local group’s development partner told the Gazette at a Feb. 17 community meeting.

“We’re excited about it, but we’re very apprehensive” about the potential costs, said Jon Rudzinski of Jamaica Plain-based Rees-Larkin Development. But, he added, “The early feel is, it might work.”

One source of optimism is the fact that Blessed Sacrament’s twin church in Cambridge—with the same name, same original architect and similar looks—has just been renovated into condos. Stony Brook Cohousing members recently toured that redeveloped Cambridge church, member Kristen Simmons, who is also an architect with experience in preservation and sustainable development, told the Gazette.

Meanwhile, other changes are under way at the former Catholic Church complex on Centre Street in Hyde Square. The COMPASS School, a tenant of the Norbert School building for more than 20 years, moved out quietly last September. The complex’s developers, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and New Atlantic Development, are now seeking another school—particularly a charter school—to fill that space.

“We got some immediate responses [from] two or three charter schools” after recently putting in a call to a charter school association, New Atlantic President Peter Roth told the Gazette. “It’s a small building, so for an existing charter school, it won’t absorb relocation, but could absorb an expansion.”

JPNDC and New Atlantic have been working on the seven-building Blessed Sacrament redevelopment—bordered by Centre, Creighton, Sunnyside and Westerly streets—for more than four years. The former Cheverus School is now occupied by the Hyde Square Task Force, and two moderate-income condo buildings are filling up quickly.

A mixed-use retail and co-op housing building going up at the prominent Centre/Creighton corner could bring a restaurant or two to the streetfront. It is expected to be finished in October, JPNDC officials said, adding that small and locally owned businesses are target tenants. The building also will be highly energy-efficient and have solar power cells on the roof.

Renovation work will begin this month to turn the former convent at Creighton and Sunnyside into single-room occupancy housing operated by the Pine Street Inn. That low-income housing should be available in about a year.

Church and cohousing

The former Blessed Sacrament Church itself—the heart of the complex and a landmark of the neighborhood—has been left out of all the work so far. A grand church with a domed roof, it has been last in line for redevelopment due to the enormous estimated costs of turning it into housing.

JPNDC and New Atlantic had never revealed their specific cost estimates. But, Thal told the Gazette after the Feb. 17 meeting, it was “somewhere in the low teens of millions.”

Stony Brook Cohousing’s estimate is in that ballpark: about $12.5 million, including planning, design and actual construction, according to Rudzinski. “There’s a reason it’s the last thing” in the complex to be redeveloped, he said.

The proposal involves turning the church’s insides into 37 condo units—33 of them market-rate, and four “affordable,” or on the lower end of market rates.

“It’s not the JP luxury market,” said Rudzinski, adding that the estimated condo prices would range from a minimum of $200,000 to a maximum of $500,000.

Rudzinski, a seasoned developer who formerly worked at the large firm WinnDevelopment, said there are no questions about the quality and suitability of the former church for housing. “The only question is, ‘How expensive would it be?’” he said.

Stony Brook Cohousing is in a 90-day “due diligence” period to see if the project is financially possible. That period ends March 22, when the group will decide whether to move forward. If the project proves feasible, the group aims for a construction start as soon as this fall and a move-in sometime in early 2012.

“It’s not a done deal yet,” Thal told the Gazette. “They still have a lot of work to do to figure out feasibility.” But, he added, JPNDC and New Atlantic like the idea of transferring the former church to “a group of people really committed to active community life.”

Community is a core concept of cohousing, a type of housing that involves private condo units and public spaces for communal eating and similar activities. The concept began in Denmark 30 years ago as a model for community-based, environmentally conscious living and has become a small movement in the US.

As Stony Brook Cohousing’s Cora Roelofs told meeting attendees, there is “no guru” or specific philosophy to follow in cohousing. The only requirement is the ability to buy a condo unit, though most cohousing members are interested in the community aspects.

“We recognize that we would be a community in a community” and would avoid a “gated” feel, said Roelofs, a JP resident whose small food company Local Ladle sells items through City Feed and Supply.

Boston’s first cohousing development was the groundbreaking Jamaica Plain Cohousing at Cornwall and Amory streets, which opened five years ago. Like most cohousing developments, it involved constructing a new, custom-designed building.

If Stony Brook Cohousing succeeds in renovating the former Blessed Sacrament Church, it will be a pioneering case of cohousing reuse of a prominent building.

The reuse of a church as housing, on the other hand, is fairly common around the city and the nation. One example is the other Blessed Sacrament Church on Pearl Street in Cambridge’s Cambridgeport neighborhood. That church complex was sold by the Boston Archdiocese several years ago, around the same time as Hyde Square’s Blessed Sacrament, and is being turned into condos that are expected to go on the market this year.

The Cambridge redevelopment, now called Dana Park Place, has some differences from the JP proposal. The prices for condos already available in the former church school there are at luxury levels—roughly $520,000 to $850,000, according to the project’s web site at www.DanaParkPlace.com. And Dana Park Place is the work of a luxury developer, while Stony Brook Cohousing will rely on a large number of equity members. It only has a few right now.

Aside from the novelty of cohousing, the Hyde Square project otherwise meets all existing approvals that JPNDC and New Atlantic already got years ago, according to Rudzinski. That includes creating 37 units and a roughly 1,000-square-foot community space in the front of the church for public meetings and events. Rudzinski said the redevelopment likely would require zoning approval and a Boston Redevelopment Authority public meeting.

A resident petition to turn the complex into an official historic landmark has been pending for years at the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC), which has been reviewing the designs of the various redevelopment projects in the meantime. Stony Brook Cohousing recently met with the BLC as well. Landmarking generally would protect only the exteriors of the buildings and grounds.

One nearby resident at the meeting noted that some bricks recently fell from the facade of the former church. Roth said that they will be restored soon.

Another meeting attendee, who identified himself as a former parishioner of the church, said he was concerned that turning it into condos would cause gentrification of Hyde Square.

“That’s not what I’m looking for in JP,” he said. “This whole strip is people, real people…not people with their nose in the air.” He called for extremely affordable housing, such as single-room occupancy units, in the church.

Roth and Thal explained that such housing is financially impossible because of the expense of renovating the building. Stony Brook Cohousing members emphasized that they would have as diverse and welcoming a community as possible.

When the Archdiocese sold the complex to JPNDC and New Atlantic, it required as one term of the deal that the former church become housing, at least some of it affordable.

For more information on Stony Brook Cohousing, see www.StonyBrookCohousing.org or call 617-648-0568. The group also meets regularly. See the JP Agenda.