Pittsfield Historical Commission wants to delay demolition of St. Joseph Convent

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PITTSFIELD — A six-month delay is being sought on a plan to demolish the former St. Joseph Convent building at 350 North St.

The Historical Commission voted Monday to ask the Community Development Board to take action under the city's demolition delay ordinance for historically significant structures. Such delays are intended to allow time for new proposals or developers to come forward with plans for restoring or reusing an endangered building.

The commission also heard a progress update Monday on a survey of historically significant structures considered at risk for demolition. The grant- and city-funded survey was approved last fall in the wake of a controversial plan to demolish the former St. Mary the Morning Star Church building on Tyler Street for a Dunkin' Donuts, which was abandoned amid strong public opposition.

Commission members, who had toured the former convent building, unanimously agreed they found the building structurally sound and of historical significance, justifying a request to delay the demolition plans.

Commissioner Kathleen Reilly said the coming board review process will allow a chance for the public to comment on the proposed demolition. John Dickson said a delay would allow time for the applicant and others to consider alternatives to razing the former convent.

St. Joseph Parish representatives informed the commission in November that the three-story brick structure — last used by the Sisters of St. Joseph as a convent in the late 1970s — has deteriorated and is "basically unusable."

Attorney Mark Brennan, representing the parish, said the cost of maintenance for the building had become "astronomical," and several attempts for reuse or redevelopment had fallen through.

"It is a sad state that we have to come to this," he said at the time. "It is not a decision we come to lightly."

City Planner C.J. Hoss told the church representatives Monday that the Community Development Board will ask that they file new forms with information about the structure. The board will later vote to either uphold the commission's delay request or reject it.

There have been several attempts to find a new use for the brick convent, which was built in 1896-97 — about 27 years after nearby St. Joseph Church.

An effort to create assisted-living apartments was advanced in the early 2000s, when a nonprofit group put forth plans to create 19 assisted-living units. The parish also considered using the convent for a parish center or attaching it to the new center that was constructed just east of the convent and opened in 2010, Brennan has said. But he said the high cost of using the historic structure, which became more prohibitive with changes in building code requirements, rendered the plan infeasible.

Under the city's demolition delay process, the commission reviews the demolition request and can make a recommendation to the Community Development Board, which then can impose a demolition delay of up to six months.

That is the process followed with the former Plunkett School on First Street, but after no new developer or reuse plan was put forth after the six-month period, Cafua Management Co., which proposes a Dunkin' Donuts restaurant on the former school parcel, bought the property and went ahead with the demolition.

That project failed, however, to win a special permit from the City Council for a drive-thru operation. Cafua is appealing that rejection in Massachusetts Land Court, and a decision is expected soon.

Commissioners also heard Monday from consultant Elizabeth Rairigh, of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, on the survey of historically significant structures that might be at risk of deterioration or demolition.

While numerous properties in the city have been suggested for inclusion, she said the goal is to create a publication with 25 to 30 properties, for which two to four pages of information about the structures will be compiled. Information would include details of the historical significance and potential for grant or low-interest loan assistance in reusing the buildings.

There also will be an action plan and information on potential reuse or development partners for each building, Rairigh said.

The original full list of endangered city properties will be retained as well and made available to potential purchasers or developers but without the same detailed information. The structures will not be assessed for structural condition.

A secondary aim of the survey process is be to raise awareness of historic Pittsfield structures and methods of preserving them. Rairigh said criteria considered for the properties includes its historical significance, whether it is similar to other structures nearby, the impact of its reuse for the city or neighborhood, and the current condition of the building and likelihood the owner would be open to reuse or restoration efforts.

Public information meetings on a draft survey report are planned in late February, possibly with day and evening sessions.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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