Church owners sorry for lack of input

September 28, 2012
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HYDE SQ.–The owners of the former Blessed Sacrament Church complex apologized for their secrecy in planning high-end housing on the site, and pledged to hear out any alternative ideas, at a Sept. 19 meeting to address community controversy.

But they also indicated that the plans basically remain the same unless someone comes up with millions of dollars in backing for any alternative. No specific future meetings or input methods were announced. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) meeting at the Julia Martin House in Jackson Square was a revival of a community advisory committee (CAC) that advised the BRA about the overall church site project when it was approved six years ago.

“We apologize to a lot of our friends and allies…and everyone in the neighborhood” who supports “equitable development,” said Maddie Ribble, vice-president of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) board. The JPNDC, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, especially has taken heat for its atypical lack of input on the plans for the church site at Centre and Creighton Streets.

New Atlantic Development, JPNDC’s partner on the site, is planning to turn the former Catholic Church building into luxury condos. The team is in negotiations with another developer to put market-rate apartments into the vacant Norbert School building on the site. Both plans have been criticized as gentrification that is not counterbalanced by 81 units of various affordable housing units the team built elsewhere on the campus.

“We want to invite you to work together with us,” said Leslie Bos, presidentof the JPNDC board, adding the organization wants to “see if we can find a viable alternatives that could be feasible.”

The JPNDC is also seeking funding for four affordable units in the church building.

New Atlantic President Peter Roth told the Gazette after the meeting that he would happily give up his condo plans in favor of an equally feasible alternative.

The church building plans call for 32-34 condo units priced at roughly $300,000 to $725,000. The Norbert School would become 21 small apartments, mostly studios and possibly some one-bedrooms. The JPNDC and New Atlantic say that such prices are necessary because other uses have proven infeasible and they can’t afford to keep maintaining the expensive old buildings. Neither plan has been formally filed with the City yet.

The audience of about 60 people responded mostly negatively to the new plans, with critics complaining that they first learned of the high-end housing from the Gazette rather than from the developers. Among them was Betsaida Gutierrez, a longtime community activist and former church parishioner whose name is on one of the site’s existing affordable housing buildings.

“Please don’t leave us out, because we are the heart of Blessed Sacrament,” Guiterrez said, suggesting that the community could come up with alternative ideas that would better serve families and low-income people.

CAC member Ken Tangvik, another longtime JPNDC ally, said the new housing plans could be a “death blow for our diverse community” due to gentification.

“I think JPNDC is looking at this from a business paradigm. We’re looking at it as a community paradigm,” Tangvik said. He has previously advocated for a cultural center in the church.

Red Burrows, vice-chair of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, said the council is officially requesting at least eight affordable units in the church building and at least five affordable units in the Norbert building.

The CAC will continue to meet on a yet-to-be-determined schedule to review the details of any new developments. If the Norbert apartment project moves ahead, it will require BRA review and at least one community meeting, because it is a new proposal since the 2006 redevelopment plan approval. The church condo project would not require similar review, according to the BRA, even though Roth told the Gazette that BRA officials told him the review would happen.

JPNDC officials told the Gazette that the organization is not planning to hold its own meetings about the project.

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