Council OKs Notre Dame Purchase
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — When the wheeling and dealing over the Notre Dame property finally ends, the city will be poised to take possession of likely the least salable piece — the church.
Mayor John Barrett III, however, is confident that the right person or group will see the value of the historic building. "I am very optimistic — and I'm not the most optimistic person — that we will have a buyer for the church," he told the City Council on Tuesday.
The council believed him, voting 8-1 to purchase the property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield for $500,000, using funds from the sale of the former gravel bank on Curran Highway. The city will then sell it for $510,000 to Arch Street Development LLC, which specializes in preserving buildings for affordable housing.
In the next link in the chain, Arch Street will retain the school building and sell off the church and rectory to Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which will, coming full circle, donate the church to the city. The church building — or more specifically its steeple — got the city involved in the property in the first place.
Rising high above North Adams from its location on East Main Street, Notre Dame steeple, now shorn of its cross, can be seen along most of the routes entering into or near the downtown. The property was left behind after the parish fell victim to declining members and rising costs — a predicament pinching many Catholic communities across the state.
Saving the Steeple
"I think it's important to save that steeple, the most prominent one in the city," said the mayor, adding that the church itself was "absolutely gorgeous."
"It is such a massive space that as more and more people come to the city and I think when the [Sol] LeWitt collection opens in Mass MoCA, it's going to open up the city to even more people who would buy this," he said.
It's not unusual for churches to be reused as commercial and residential space; some have been turned into theaters and galleries. A gallery is what the church building was supposed to be, until the Contemporary Artists Center fell — or was pushed, depending on who's talking — out of the deal.
The 17-year-old center, which hasn't been actively operating since last year, was the among the first to show interest in the property when the city was trying to put a deal together with the diocese earlier this year. Its proposal was rejected, along with one by a local contractor for the school building alone. But it re-entered discussions after a second request for proposals prompted a submission by Arch Street.
MCLA was interested in the rectory but had stepped aside when the CAC was back in the picture. Arch Street has a good relationship with city leaders for taking on the former Clark Biscuit building, also came under the city's purview. The development company is renovating the old mill into affordable apartments and expects to begin serious work there soon.
Barrett said the city had tried very hard to work with the CAC, but "the same time they were negotiating with us they were cutting a deal in New York." The CAC apparently purchased two buildings in Troy, N.Y., with a $210,000 mortgage recorded by the county on Oct. 30.
"They suckered the arts community" that had written letters to the city on the center's behalf, said the mayor, adding that its leaders, director Heather "Hezzie" Phillips and board President Emily Daunis, had also pulled out of a deal last winter with Michael Meehan for artists lofts in the Blackinton Mill.
In a letter in Tuesday's North Adams Transcript, the CAC's founder and former director, Eric Rudd, bemoaned the loss of the center while listing his own grievances — including depending on him to pay its bills.
"Moving does not pay bills or straighten out a disorganized organization," he wrote.
The Other Side \
Phillips and Daunis released a letter to the local arts community expressing regret the project had fallen through and that the CAC would be moving from the city. They say the city failed to provide complete contracts and paperwork in a timely manner and that the church suffers from code-related issues the city would not address.
"It is enormously frustrating for us, considering all the time and effort that went into this project, to watch as actions beyond our control mean that our community will not reap the rewards we had envisioned and planned for," they wrote. "We continue to think of North Adams as our home and, after our start up time in Troy, we would like to initiate partnerships to program community events and shows back in North Adams as well."
The mayor said the church building is in good shape although it does have moisture problems and a leaking roof. When the city buys the property, the diocese will return $25,000 to cover the cost of the roof and "mothballing" the property.
City Councilor Richard Alcombright, who sat on the Tri-Parish Committee that surveyed buildings in the city's three parishes, agreed that the church was structurally sound.
The city has long experience with maintaining and developing buildings, the mayor said, pointing to Western Gateway Heritage State Park, Northern Berkshire YMCA, Sarah T. Haskins School, the armory and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Skating Rink.
"Whoever buys [the church] is going to get it cheap but they better have a good plan," he quipped.
The deal is not expected to cost the city "a dime." In the worst-case scenario, if Arch Street backs out, the city would also be left with the school, the most valuable building on the property, said Barrett.
MCLA plans to use the rectory for its MCLA Foundation development office. Arch Street will convert the school into 14 high-end condominiums. The development company is expected to purchase the property by March 31. There was little discussion by the councilors and most of the comments were positive.
City Councilor Christopher Tremblay was the lone no vote. He had previously objected to the deal, citing the lack of a guarantee, such as a purchase-and-sales agreement. Tremblay, who lost a bid for a second term last month, did not speak during the discussion.
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