A few months ago, I wrote about the South End’s Holy Trinity Church, which is being transformed into high-priced condos with an “eye-popping” glass-and-steel structure design. The renovation “ripped the soul” out of Boston, said the one critic who spoke out in lonely opposition at a city planning meeting.
In Jamaica Plain, a larger, more organized group of citizen-activists stopped a similar plan for another closed church — at least for now. But to hang onto their piece of Boston’s soul, the Hyde Square Task Force needs more than prayers.
After stopping a plan to develop 34 luxury condos at Blessed Sacrament, the nonprofit task force bought the former church, which is located at 365 Centre street, in a neighborhood known as Boston’s Latin Quarter. Now it’s looking for a visionary development partner who is willing to commit to a plan that sets aside a performance and gathering space for public use — and offers affordable, not luxury, housing.
Put community above profit in a building so beautiful that, even in shut-down mode, it is easy to imagine buyers willing to pay the most heavenly price to live there? That’s a challenge in Boston’s hot real estate market.
The church, which was built nearly 100 years ago, was one of more than 70 that were shuttered in 2004 by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. According to local historian and longtime JP resident Richard Heath, Blessed Sacrament was designed by Charles Greco, who used a Latin Cross plan plus the 90-foot high dome. The building is about a half acre in size and “is distinguished by one of the greatest church facades in Boston,” notes Heath.
The church’s 3-acre campus was bought by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and New Atlantic Development in 2005, according to the Jamaica Plain Gazette. Several buildings on the site have already been converted to a variety of uses — including 16 affordable condos, 21 market-rate lofts, 36 low-income apartments, and 28 units for formerly homeless men and women. There is also a restaurant and a martial arts school as well as a youth center run by the task force.
After fighting the plan for luxury condos — with back-up from the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino — the task force purchased the 15,000-square-foot church in 2013. The purchase price of $875,000 is a bargain for JP, but the task force is now carrying a $680,000 mortgage, financed by La Raza Community Development Fund.
“We couldn’t bear the thought that such a beautiful piece of architecture that was built to provide hope, inspiration, and community would be inaccessible to the community,” said the Hyde Square Task Force’s Ken Tangvik.
I met recently with Tangvik; Kim Comart, interim task force executive director; and Brenda Rodriguez-Andujar, who runs the arts and cultural programs at the youth center, to hear their wish list for a development partner who understands their great love for a space that served as the spiritual backdrop for thousands of families.
There are real questions about the ability of an idealistic nonprofit youth group to make the numbers work. But Comart said they understand “someone has to make money.” Rodriguez-Andujar added the goal is not to “lament what once was but be happy about what can be.”
Some will argue their mission is misguided: Engineer the real estate market at your peril. Supply and demand should rule it.
But this city desperately needs more affordable housing. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who understands that, just signed an executive order that requires developers to pay nearly double the current fees to put up luxury buildings in Boston’s hottest neighborhoods — with the extra money going to expand construction of housing for lower- and middle-income Bostonians.
Here is a group of citizens fighting valiantly against the tide of gentrification. What better place to make that stand than at an iconic church that long served a thriving immigrant neighborhood? Countless baptisms, weddings, and funerals took place there. It was the heart of a community featuring Latino-owned businesses and Afro-Latin culture.
There is no better place to stop the soul-ripping.