Demolition of former St. Joseph's convent building approved


PITTSFIELD — St. Joseph's Church has gotten the green light to demolish the former convent building on its downtown campus.

The Community Development Board voted 3-2 on Tuesday to reject a recommendation from the Historical Commission to invoke the city's six-month demolition delay ordinance to allow more time for a reuse or restoration plan to be proposed.

The board also quickly approved a special permit for the city's proposed replacement of the partially condemned Columbus Avenue parking garage with a new three-level facility capable of accommodating more than 400 vehicles.

Parish representatives had previously sought to have the Historical Commission sign off on demolition of the three-story brick building at 350 North St., which was last used by the Sisters of St. Joseph as a convent in the late 1970s. They said all development and reuse proposals for the structure have all fallen through and the building has deteriorated.

Attorney Mark Brennan reiterated on Tuesday that the parish has considered an assisted-living proposal and a plan to merge the convent into a new parish center building, among other proposals over the past 15 or more years.

The housing plan by a nonprofit never materialized, and the parish found that incorporating the brick convent into the new parish center was economically impossible. Maintaining the structure to avoid deterioration and protecting it from vandalism also is well beyond the parish's financial resources, he said.

In addition, since the building is on the parish campus some uses, such as for apartments or condominiums, would not "work well with the parish's mission."

The parish also would not want to subdivide the campus, he said.

The Historical Commission in January voted to seek the six-month demolition delay allowed under the ordinance. Members had toured the convent and said they found it structurally sound and of historical significance, justifying at least a six-month delay to seek new reuse proposals.

No commissioners attended the board meeting Tuesday. City Planner C.J. Hoss said they were unable to attend, but he summarized their concerns, including that "it met the criteria for delaying a demolition" under the ordinance.

However, board members Louis Costi and David Hathaway said they believe the parish has tried for some time to find an acceptable reuse plan and recommended approving the demolition.

"I would support tearing it down as soon as possible," Costi said.

Costi, Hathaway and Craig Strassel voted against delaying the demolition, while Chairwoman Sheila Irvin and Floriana Fitzgerald voted in favor of the delay.

Hathaway said removing the building would eliminate a section of the parcel where vandals or others can now congregate unobserved from North Street.

Brennan said the plan is to expand the lawn area fronting on North Street, which has been a venue site during community events.

The convent was built in 1896-97, about 27 years after nearby St. Joseph Church.

Also on Tuesday, the board unanimously approved a special permit for the planned new $9.6 million parking garage at Columbus and Summer streets. The permit is required because the facility is in the Downtown Arts Overlay District.

City Director of Building Maintenance Denis Guyer said the current garage, which is usable only on the first level after an inspection in July 2014 discovered structural flaws, would be replaced by a three-level garage with more than 400 spaces. The current structure was built in 1977.

Guyer said the new facility would include better lighting and security features but would have no office or other space in an effort to add more parking spaces than the original facility.

He said the city is seeking release of a state transportation bond earmark for the garage of "not less than $6 million," along with federal or state grant funding for the project. The construction plans are still being developed, he said, and the city is seeking input from officials, North Street merchants and other abutters, and the general public on the plans.

On Tuesday, Nate Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said a need for more "parking, parking, parking" was noted in a study the commission undertook on possible changes if passenger rail is extended to Pittsfield from the south, as proposed.

The nearby Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center already generates use of the Columbus Street garage, he said, but with rail service to points south and possibly east and west that need would increase by an estimated 70 to 100 spaces or more.

Kristine Hurley, executive director of Downtown Inc., which represents the downtown business community, said the need already exists for more off-street parking in light of expected metering for on-street parking to encourage use of garages and lots, and because of the many shops, restaurants and arts venues in the downtown.

Hurley also spoke on behalf of Berkshire Community College, which in 2011 opened the school's four-classroom Education Center at Conte — in the Silvio O. Conte federal building at 78 Center St. Those classes are typically "booked full," she said, and "parking is critical" to the college's plans for the site.

Alexandra Warshaw, a volunteer at the Pittsfield tourist information service at the Intermodal Center, suggested that more visible space for a visitors booth might be created within the new parking garage as part of the project plan.

The board voted unanimously to approve the site plan and permit.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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