Pittsfield Historical Commission upset with vote to proceed with demolition at former convent


PITTSFIELD >> Historical Commission members, clearly frustrated with a Community Development Board vote rejecting their recommendation to delay demolishing a North Street building, are likely to propose major changes to the city's demolition-delay ordinance.

Meeting Monday, commissioners discussed a 3-2 vote of the Community Development Board on March 15 to reject their recommendation that demolition of the former convent building on the St. Joseph Church campus be delayed for six months. They also were unhappy with what they termed a lack of adequate notice of the board's meeting.

"I feel we were sidestepped," said commissioner Kathleen Reilly. "We didn't know [of the board meeting] in time to attend."

She also expressed frustration because of a comment from board member Louis Costi, who noted that no commissioners were in attendance. Reilly said members did not receive enough notice and their intent was to attend the session.

Board members Costi and David Hathaway said at the March 15 meeting that they believed the parish has tried for some time to find an acceptable reuse plan and recommended approval of the demolition.

Costi, Hathaway and Craig Strassel voted to approve the convent's demolition, and Chairwoman Sheila Irvin and Floriana Fitzgerald voted against.

Currently, the city's demolition-delay ordinance requires a formal request from the Historical Commission for a delay, but final approval must be obtained from the Community Development Board.

Among changes being considered by commissioners, they said, are that the commission be the sole authority in implementing a delay, which is designed to allow time for new proposals or developers to come forward when a historically significant structure is headed toward demolition.

The three-story brick convent, built in 1896-97, was proposed for demolition by St. Joseph Parish. Representatives have said several reuse or development efforts over the past 15 years have fallen through, and the now-vacant structure is deteriorating and the cost for maintenance is beyond the parish's resources.

Parish representatives had earlier sought to have the Historical Commission sign off on demolition of the building at 350 North St., which was last used by the Sisters of St. Joseph as a convent in the late 1970s.

However, commissioners said in January they had little doubt of the structure's historical significance, and said they were convinced after a tour of the building that it is essentially sound and could be restored or reused.

"We followed the [demolition delay] bylaw," Reilly said Monday, referring to the conditions for imposing a delay. "They should have waited to consult the Historical Commission. They say we should have been there when we were not notified by them [in time to attend]."

City Planner C.J. Hoss said following the meeting Monday that other Massachusetts communities have different requirements in their demolition-delay provisions, some giving full authority to the Historical Commission in deciding on a delay, designating certain buildings in advance as subject to the regulations, and allowing delays of up to 18 months or longer on historically significant properties facing demolition.

Hoss said commissioners, who did not have a full board present on Monday, are expected to consider ordinance changes at their next meeting. Most likely, he said, any proposal would go to the City Council for review.

Reilly said she also hopes interested persons will attend a March 30 meeting at City Hall to gather input on a partially grant-funded study on preservation of historic structures in Pittsfield. A list of endangered structures is being compiled with the help of a consultant, along with information on options for reuse or restoration projects.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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