Loft apartments planned for church site

May 11, 2012
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HYDE SQ.—Loft-style, market-rate apartments are being planned for the vacant Norbert School building on the Blessed Sacrament Church site, a move that reportedly has “divided” the board of the affordable housing nonprofit involved in selling the building.

The vacant former church on the Centre Street site also is getting developers’ attention, with at least two proposals for housing or community space on the table and a decision expected with the next couple of months.

The Norbert School at 26 Sunnyside St. would become “small, loft-style units for the younger knowledge workers so important for the future of our city,” according to Drew Leff, a principal at GLC Development Resources, whose offer to buy the building was accepted last week. “Knowledge workers” means people in high-tech fields.

“We’re going to restore and renovate the building,” not knock it down, Leff added.

The former Roman Catholic Church complex on Centre between Creighton and Westerly streets was closed eight years ago. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and New Atlantic Development bought it. They have redeveloped most of the site into affordable housing and retail and nonprofit space.

The gigantic church building was slated to become market-rate condos in the original plan. But it has remained vacant and in the past two weeks underwent “emergency repairs” for falling plaster and other issues, according to JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal. At least two new proposals for it are under consideration, Thal told the Gazette this week.

“There are a couple of different possibilities that have been out there,” Thal said. “We’re still probably a couple of months away from hearing what the decision is. We’re hoping that [decision comes] sooner rather than later.”

The Norbert School building was long home to the COMPASS School, but it moved out in 2009. The 15,000-square-foot, two-and-a-half-story building has been shown to multiple parties, including charter schools and office developers, Thal said.

Last week, the JPNDC and New Atlantic accepted a purchase offer for the building from GLC in partnership with real estate attorney Matthew Kiefer and his wife Nan Porter, both of whom are Jamaica Plain residents. Kiefer did not return a Gazette phone call.

The sale required approval by the board of the JPNDC, which has a mission to preserve and create affordable housing. There reportedly was dispute on the board about approving market-rate housing on the site.

“I hear the [JPNDC] board is pretty divided,” said a source with knowledge of the sale who wished to remain anonymous in this article.

Thal acknowledged that the topic was discussed by the JPNDC board. Board chair Leslie Bos did not return a Gazette phone call.

“We have people on our board who want as much affordable housing as possible,” Thal said. But, he noted, “Market-rate housing was always envisioned as part of the mix on the campus,” referring to the original plans for the church building.

Thal declined to state the sales price of the school building, and Leff said it is too early to describe more details of the development plan. However, the source with knowledge of the deal said that the board was presented with more details, which involved 18 apartments with estimated rents of $1,800 to $2,000 a month.

“We see that as a complement” to the affordable housing already on the church site, said Leff about the market-rate proposal.

Leff noted that the income also will help the JPNDC continue its affordable housing mission. Thal said the empty school and church buildings are costing the JPNDC and New Atlantic about $20,000 a month. New Atlantic President Peter Roth did not return a Gazette phone call.

“By restoring the building, we’ll be good neighbors to the rest of the Blessed Sacrament property and Sunnyside and Westerly streets,” Leff said.

Boston-based GLC is a consulting and development firm that worked with JPNDC on the massive Jackson Square redevelopment. Its other partnership work includes the new Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury and a 155-unit residential complex in Lawrence. On its own, GLC created a Walgreens drug store development in Dorchester.

Meanwhile, the JPNDC is close to signing rental agreements for some businesses in the new retail space on the site at Centre and Creighton, Thal said. He said the businesses include a restaurant, a medical office and a “ju-jitsu studio.”

Over the years, the Blessed Sacrament redevelopment has ignited controversies about potential social impacts. The affordable housing was opposed by some neighbors worried about property values and crime, which triggered a series of heated community meetings. A failed proposal for condos in the church building drew complaints by some residents about gentrification of Hyde Square.

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