Business

Neighbors enraged after South Boston condo project back on track

The Archdiocese of Boston shuttered the Gate of Heaven School in 2008, merging it with another Catholic school nearby.

Globe Staff/File 2012

The Archdiocese of Boston shuttered the Gate of Heaven School in 2008, merging it with another Catholic school nearby.

A proposed South Boston condo project that Mayor Martin J. Walsh temporarily blocked last summer is set to come before the city for approval Thursday, enraging neighbors who say they were promised the controversial development had been halted for good.

Opponents have long blasted the plan by Dorchester developer Oranmore Enterprises LLC to convert the shuttered four-story Gate of Heaven Catholic school into condominiums, saying the project is emblematic of South Boston’s gentrification. Some are still upset the Boston Archdiocese closed the school in 2008 and want a public school or charter school to take over the space; others argue the neighborhood is already short on parking spots and bus seats without adding more residents.

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Walsh at first seemed to side with the Gate of Heaven Neighborhood Association, the group leading the charge against the project. In May, he put Oranmore’s proposal into a “cooling-off period,” effectively stalling it while neighbors worked to find a school tenant. In the meantime, an informal door-to-door survey ordered by Walsh found 85 percent of nearby residents opposed putting condos in the building.

“When you have a project like that with so much controversy, it’s really hard to move forward,” Walsh told the Boston Business Journal at the time. “It’s not like the community is split over it.”

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The cooling-off period seemed a new approach in Boston, part of an effort by Walsh’s administration to distance itself from the Boston Redevelopment Authority of former Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Under Menino, the authority was sometimes criticized as being too quick to rubber-stamp developments over neighbors’ objections.

But eight months later, no school tenant has been found, and Walsh decided to let the project come before the BRA, after all.

“The Gate of Heaven project will take a vacant and underused building and turn it into new housing,” the mayor said in a statement. “After nearly a year of delay, it’s time to resolve this situation and move forward.”

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City Councilor Bill Linehan, who had opposed the condo plan, also reversed course this week. He said in a statement that if the project is not approved, a similar one will inevitably take its place.

Officials argued that it was unrealistic to presume the vacant building, which needs major repairs and has begun to attract drug users and vandals, would somehow become more attractive to a school after failing to attract one since May.

But the city’s reversal has deeply angered the neighborhood association. Kevin Lally, its president, said Walsh had assured him the condo project was dead.

“We’re very disappointed,” Lally said. “In my book, ‘dead’ means ‘dead,’ not ‘gone for a little while.’ ”

Lally said his group is concerned that South Boston is being overdeveloped, and that infrastructure has not kept pace with a growing population. He vowed to continue fighting the condos.

“We’re condo-ed out over here,” he said emphatically. “There are too many people, too few parking spots, and too few seats on the bus. We’re not going to take this lying down.”

Oranmore manager Michael Moore said dozens of abutters had signed on in support of the project, but he acknowledged opposition remains. He called the delay “frustrating, but understandable.”

“We’re condo-ed out over here. There are too many people, too few parking spots, and too few seats on the bus.”

Kevin Lally, Gate of Heaven Neighborhood Association president 
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“It is a large project in a changing neighborhood,” he said. “I do understand the dynamics.”

Oranmore’s proposal for the 48,900-square-foot space has been scaled back from 31 to 26 units and includes 40 parking spaces.

The archdiocese still owns the building, but Moore said his company would buy it for $5 million if the BRA approves the project Thursday night.

After that, Oranmore would still need to win several zoning exceptions and have its design reviewed before breaking ground. The company hopes to start construction in September or October and finish within a year.

Related:

10/25/12: In South Boston, new apartments and more change

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.
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