BLC hears advisory review for Blessed Sacrament Church project

The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) heard an advisory review on June 14 for the proposed changes to the Blessed Sacrament Church at 362 Centre St., to be developed by Pennrose in partnership with the Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF).

HSTF owned the church building since 2014, but was unable to find a partner to help renovate the building so it could be used for community art and performance space. After deciding to sell the building, HSTF led a community process to find a developer who would best serve the needs of HSTF and the surrounding community. 

HSTF and the community chose Pennrose as the developer for the church project, which is proposed to have 55 affordable and workforce apartments plus a multi-use community space both inside and outside of the building for HSTF programming. 

Maureen Cavanaugh of The Public Archaeology Laboratory, the cultural resources consultant with Pennrose, said that a landmark petition for the church was submitted in 2005, but is still pending. 

Rosanne Foley, Executive Director of the BLC, informed commissioners at this hearing that the study report for the church is expected to be complete on June 30. 

“There are likely to be many character-defining features that will be emphasized in that study report,” Foley said. “Once the Commission has a chance to vote on that and accept the building as a landmark, it would be difficult to make the case to change those character-defining features.”

Charlie Adams, Regional Vice President for Pennrose, said that “this has been a really great process here working with the HSTF.” 

Rebecca Schofield of Pennrose said that a survey of the existing building was completed to investigate its structure. The exterior of the building is deteriorated, and there are a number of other structural concerns as well.

Architect Kenneth Hartfiel said that “we’re leaving the building pretty much intact,” but the proposal includes two additions on the north side of the rear. He said the existing sacristy on the left hand side of the building will be demolished.

The existing steps on the front facade of the building (which faces Centre St.) will remain, but will be narrowed and the two side entrances will be lowered to sidewalk level for accessibility.

Hartfiel said that the original proposal included additions on the sides of the building, but those have since been removed because it was determined they were not necessary for the proposed unit count. He said there will be a “large number of two bedroom units.”

Landscape architect Warner Larson said that the proposal includes opening up the plaza space to “give the building better presence.”

He said that an existing small maple and an old yew hedge will be removed so there is more outdoor space for HSTF to use. The project includes streetscape improvements, and the community space will be accessible to the general public as well as residents.

He talked about a proposed “multi-level deck” underneath the existing Linden tree on the property that would also provide seating for HSTF performances, and there is also an outdoor terrace proposed for residents of the building. The residential entrance will be on the east side of the building.

Hartfiel said that the existing arched windows will be opened up and made larger to allow for more light in the units.

He said that in response to feedback from the city that the building “didn’t look residential enough,” there is now an option proposed to include Juliette balconies with sliders. 

On the rear, he said that the chimneys are not able to be salvaged, so they will be removed, along with the sacristy and “two flanking stairs” that exist on the bottom part of the rear facade. There are also “additional punched openings in the rear facade” proposed for the residential units.

Overall, the Commission had some clarifying questions about certain aspects of the proposal, but a major concern was with the loss of the arched windows.

“I understand the need to expand the openings and create a more residential look, but this is a Romanesque church and losing those arched windows is a bit disturbing to me,” said BLC Chair Lynn Smiledge. “Certainly, the side and the rear elevations are almost commercial; institutional looking,” she added.

“We tried in earnest,” Hartfiel said, to work with the existing arched windows, but he said it is difficult to put new construction residential units within the footprint of a large church like this.

“The top floor was the biggest challenge with the arches,” he said, and ensuring there is enough light coming into the units.

Commissioner David Berarducci said that the impending study report on the church “will dictate a lot…” about some of these details.

Other comments were made about the color of the proposed wings, some other questions about materials, as well as masking the sides of the parking lot. The team said that the shrubs will be two to four feet in height and will block off the parking lot while still allowing for visibility for drivers. A suggestion was also made to potentially include skylights so those top units could have more light without sacrificing too much of the architectural detail of the existing building. 

Cavanaugh said that although the team has previously met wit BLC staff, they were not told about the study report being released on June 30. “Those will make or break this project,” she said, and asked if a draft could be viewed ahead of time.

“Our schedule is so tight to get these study reports completed by the end of the year,” Foley said. “We’re hauling to get this stuff done.” She said that the team did not receive funding for this until March, so the reports were started late.

“I understand how difficult it is to get housing into a completely blank, yet gorgeous brick facade,” she said. 

Smiledge added that “standards and criteria shouldn’t make or break a project,” and the BLC is always willing to “engage in conversation and negotiations on these projects.”

Since this was an advisory review, no vote was taken. The team can use the feedback from the Commission to make adjustments to the proposal before they come back for approval. 

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