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Hyde Square Task Force expects to soon finish deal to buy Blessed Sacrament church, use building for community space

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  July 18, 2013 12:25 PM

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The nonprofit Hyde Square Task Force said it expects to soon complete a deal to buy the vacant, 96-year-old Blessed Sacrament church in Jamaica Plain so it can use the building for community space, while blocking an alternative, controversial proposal to convert the church into pricey condos.

“For nearly a hundred years the Blessed Sacrament church was a place where residents of all ages and all backgrounds came together for inspiration, support and celebration,” said a statement Thursday from the task force, which runs community and youth programming. “Going forward we envision the church as the cultural centerpiece of our Latin Quarter; a place where all residents from our neighborhood, Jamaica Plain and Boston can gather, perform, create community, and celebrate individual, family, and community-wide events.”

The task force said the deal is not done, but a purchase and sale agreement was recently signed for the organization to buy the 16,800 square-foot Italian Renaissance Revival-style church.

“There's a lot of work ahead of us before we purchase the church in the next 120 days,” the statement said. “We look forward to working with our community, elected officials, donors and supporters to make this exciting project a reality for all our youth and families in Jamaica Plain and beyond.”

Officials from entities involved in the deal declined to comment further or did not respond to requests for comment.

The Archdiocese of Boston closed the church campus in 2004 and sold the three-acre property along Centre Street for $6 million a year later to two co-developers, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and New Atlantic Development.

A master plan to redevelop the campus was approved one year after that, following an extensive community review process.

Since then, 81 affordable housing units have been built on the campus. All of the units constructed so far follow the original plan.

But, there are two historic buildings on the campus that have not yet been redeveloped – church building and the Norbert School building.

Recent proposals for housing inside each of the two buildings have drawn criticism because each would alter some aspects of the original master plan. Opponents have said they prefer that community space be built in each of the buildings instead of housing, or that there at least be more affordable units included in the housing proposals.

The housing proposal for the church calls for it to be converted into between 32 and 34 condominiums, four of which would be designated as affordable housing. The proposal has drawn controversy even though it largely follows the original plan, would actually create a slightly-higher proportion of affordable units, and also calls for about 200 more square feet of community space than the original plan.

The other controversial proposal for the campus calls for converting the Norbert School building into 19 market-rate rental and two deed-restricted affordable units with 17 parking spaces.

The original master plan called for that building to be kept as a school, but the school moved out in 2009 and the building has been empty since. The housing plan has been criticized because it differs from the original plan to keep the building for community use and because some feel the proposal should have a higher ratio of affordable housing.

On Tuesday, the redevelopment authority board voted unanimously to approve the Norbert School plan.

At a meeting of the city’s redevelopment authority’s board on Tuesday evening, Lance Campbell, a senior project manager for the agency, said he and other authority staff recommended the Norbert project's approval in part because of the near-complete deal to sell the church to the task force for use as community space.

"There is a proposal for a conversion of the church property on the Blessed Sacrament campus from residential uses to community space created by the Hyde Square Task Force," he said. "[But] the sale of the church that will allow for the new community space is not complete."

He said that the sale would need to include revisions to a restriction put on the property deed by the church campus’ former owner, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

When the Archdiocese sold the church to the current owners of the property, it placed a restriction that not more than one-quarter of the building be for community space. The rest of the building must be used as housing.

Campbell said Tuesday that, “All parties have agreed to terms of the revised [deed] restrictions, but execution of the document prior to tonight’s board meeting was not possible.”

He asked that the authority’s director not issue any written approval documents “until and unless” the near-complete church sale to the task force is inked.

The original plan called for the entire campus to contain 118 housing units, 88 of which, or about 74 percent, would be designated as affordable. If the church becomes community space and the Norbert School plan is completed, the campus would contain 102 total units, 83 of which, or about 81 percent, would be designated as affordable.

For months, opponents to the plans demanded that the co-developers consider new proposals with either more affordable housing or more community use within the two un-redeveloped buildings.

Officials from the co-developers responded to the criticism saying they had entertained more than 50 ideas to repurpose the two undeveloped buildings, but the only two that proved feasible were the two housing conversion options. The developers also said they were not willing to put off their development plans much longer because they have paid a few million dollars to maintain the vacant church and school and continue to incur costs.

But, in February, the co-developers decided to try once more to find viable alternatives for the church, according to the Jamaica Plain Gazette. The Hyde Square Task Force submitted a bid and has been negotiating to buy the church since.

The task force owns another facility on the church campus, the Cheverus school building, where the organization runs some youth programming.

In May, the task force held a rally in front of the church to gain support for its plans while simultaneously protesting the housing conversion plans.

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