Church sale looms as developers plan

July 6, 2012
By

HYDE SQ.—The former Blessed Sacrament Church building at 365 Centre St. could be sold within weeks. At least two would-be developers are scrambling to draw up plans that could turn it into market-rate condos or a multi-use community space.

A community use is supported by the Hyde Square Task Force, a nonprofit youth organization that is a tenant on the church campus and is expressing concern about luxury condos.

“We’re hoping to make a decision within the next several weeks,” said Richard Thal, executive director of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), which co-owns the giant, vacant church with New Atlantic Development. “We need to decide very soon what’s the most viable plan to move forward with the redevelopment of it.”

One potential developer is New Atlantic itself, said Thal. He said New Atlantic could buy out the JPNDC’s share and execute their original plan from 2005, when they purchased the former Roman Catholic church property. That involves market-rate condo units and possible community-use space. New Atlantic President Peter Roth did not return a Gazette phone call.

Meanwhile, a small group called Neighbors for Blessed Sacrament, led by Mozart Street resident Jason Hutchinson, plans to hold a community meeting to whip up support for a grassroots proposal that would include a café, a children’s playspace business, a gallery, church services and more.

“This is something we can do for ourselves and our community. We just need the money,” Hutchinson told the Gazette, acknowledging that his group has more ideas than funding at the moment. “I feel like it has to be our building” as a community, he said.

That idea is unofficially backed by the Task Force, according to organizing director Ken Tangvik.

“I haven’t heard from anyone who wants luxury condos” in the church, said Tangvik, adding that the Task Force “would much rather prefer the church be put to some other use.”

“We want to publicly encourage them to take another look…to invite more proposals than condos,” said Tangvik. The Task Force will make community use of the church a “theme” of its upcoming Summer Nights Out festivals, which in part are staged in front of the church, he said.

“We don’t see this as being anti-NDC,” Tangvik added. “The NDC has done tremendous things in the neighborhood. We just think they can do better in the church.”

Hutchinson’s ideas originally sprang from efforts by a former JPNDC employee. Jen Faigel was the nonprofit’s real estate director at the time of the Blessed Sacrament purchase. Now, as an independent real estate consultant, she worked on getting other developers interested in community and entertainment uses of the church.

Two developers and a broker took a serious look at the property, Faigel told the Gazette. All had the idea of an “event space” with a restaurant as an anchor business.

“Think Bella Luna, bigger,” Faigel said, referring to the popular restaurant and club at the JPNDC-owned Brewery complex on Amory Street.

Faigel said that within the past month, she had a developer she declined to name ready to perform a financial feasibility study. But JPNDC insisted on an up-front fee first, which made the effort stall.

Tangvik and Faigel both acknowledged that the original plan always included market-rate condos in the church—likely extremely expensive units due to the redevelopment costs. But they also noted that the plan shifted, with the former Norbert building recently slated to become luxury apartments rather than a school.

“It’s not the end of the universe” if the church becomes condos, Faigel said. “It would be a disappointment. For those with gentrification fears, this kind of solidifies it.”

Hutchinson said JPNDC’s asking price is $1.4 million.

Thal said Hutchinson has been in discussions with JPNDC for about six months and has “some interesting ideas.”

“What we’ve said to him repeatedly is, we need to see an offer,” Thal said.

Many would-be developers have looked at the former church for a wide variety of uses, Thal said. But to date, only one has made a formal offer. That was a proposal several years ago for “cohousing,” a condo project involving some communal spaces, which turned out to be financially infeasible.

The JPNDC was unable to carry out its own condo development plan and is now pressing any potential buyers to submit an offer quickly. JPNDC and New Atlantic already have spent at least a quarter-million dollars simply maintaining the empty, historic building, which was shuttered by the Boston Archdiocese in 2004. JPNDC has to stop pouring money into the property, said Thal.

Hutchinson operates a construction business called KeeneyHutch and attends the nearby River of Life Church. His group originally formed from talk of the church moving its services to the Blessed Sacrament site, he said, an idea partly spawned from a broker Faigel got interested in the church.

Hutchinson spoke of his idea in sometimes in religious terms about the loss of community in modern life and the desire to unite local residents as equal “God’s children.”

A grassroots multiuse plan could “bring together the entire community, gentrified and otherwise” and “maybe…balance Whole Foods,” Hutchinson said, referring to the upscale grocer whose arrival in Hyde Square last year drew praise and criticism as a sign of gentrification.

“I support Whole Foods, but I understand the other side as well,” he said. “We have Hispanics over here. We have gentrification over here. Can we get them together?”

He said his group includes a Roslindale gallery owner, a church pastor who lives on Sunnyside Street behind the church, and a JP resident with an idea for a playspace business that could be called Jamaica Playin’. He said he also has discussed the plan with the Hyde Square Task Force, whose executive director, Claudio Martinez, did not return a Gazette phone call.

Hutchinson also said he has discussed a possible team-up with New Atlantic President Peter Roth.

“I think he’s open to a community use idea, but I think he’s skeptical about the feasibility of it, and rightfully so,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson acknowledged that his group’s idea faces big financial hurdles—not only the asking price, but also the rehab and maintenance. But, he said, JP has the activism and wherewithal to pull it off if enough people get involved, saying his plan could “radically change our neighborhood and be a model that can move across the country.”

Thal said that the JPNDC will evaluate any offer by various criteria. A big one is how it fits in with the rest of the former Blessed Sacrament campus, which JPNDC has developed into affordable housing, retail space and some Task Force programming. Another building on the site, the former church school, is also slated to become market-rate condos.

Parking and traffic would be another issue, as the church has about 40 dedicated on-site parking spaces. And a big issue for Hutchinson’s plan is a deed restriction imposed by the Boston Archdiocese that says the church can only be redeveloped as housing with possible commercial space in the front. Any other use would require getting the Archdiocese to life the restriction, he said.

Then there is the simple issue of whether a potential developer can afford to purchase, rehab and maintain the complex, century-old structure.

“One of the factors we have to think about is, what is the viability of the plan?” Thal said.

Faigel contrasted the church’s situation with the Brewery complex, a former brewery that was rehabbed into commercial, retail and light industrial space, as well as JPNDC’s headquarters. The famously successful project came from JPNDC’s studies of alternative uses and efforts to recruit a wide range of community uses, she said.

“When I think of how the Brewery happened, it wasn’t because a broker just listed it,” she said.