Last Wednesday, the Worcester Planning Board gave its approval to Roseland Residential Trust’s plan to build 84 units of housing on the site of Notre Dame des Canadiens Church. This brings Worcester one step closer to the demolition of the Salem Square landmark.
The previous day, Worcester Magazine reported that Mayor Joseph M. Petty will ask the City Council to “support in principle the relocation of the Red Sox Triple-A baseball team to Worcester including building a stadium to accommodate this team and further, request the City Manager do all that is reasonably in his power to facilitate this move.”
It would certainly be convenient to view these developments independently. In this way, we would not see the similarities and differences that tell a lot about the priorities of the city’s leaders and what they seem to believe residents want.
In addition to Petty’s comments, WoMag reported city officials have distributed “a letter of support to representatives throughout the community in its attempt to woo the Pawtucket Red Sox to Worcester.”
The letter reads, in part, “We, the undersigned leaders of business, nonprofit, government, faith and community groups across Worcester, hereby join one another to express strong and enthusiastic support for bringing the Red Sox AAA affiliate to the Heart of the Commonwealth.
“City spokesperson John Hill confirmed the city circulated the letter to community leaders, with City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. having, ‘gotten the sense there is broad support for the idea of having discussions with the PawSox,’ ” WoMag reported.
Such public support from the city’s chief executive and mayor stands in stark contrast to efforts to spare the church, which was closed in 2007 and sold in 2010. This is notwithstanding the City Council’s nonbinding resolution in April that urged, “all parties controlling the future of Notre Dame des Canadiens Church to delay its demolition for a reasonable additional period of time to allow for potential developers to pursue its development.”
In an interview last month, Augustus said, “It’s too bad that the church is going to come down, but for all the comments I see and all the people blaming the city and saying shame on the city — there’s a lot [of] buildings that are still up. We’re not batting [1.000], we haven’t been able to save every building every time, but I do think we’ve had some successes.”
This is undeniably true. As proof, one need only look at examples such as historic Stearns Tavern, which was moved from Park Avenue to Mill Street to avoid demolition and is now undergoing renovation; the Central Building at 332 Main St., for which the owner had briefly petitioned in 2011 to tear down and is now in line for a $20 million redevelopment; the former Worcester County Courthouse, which is expected to undergo a $53 million renovation; and, most recently, the historic Ransom F. Taylor Block, otherwise known as the Money Stop, which was purchased by the Mass. Development Finance Agency to be spun off and redeveloped.
At the same time, we’re again left to question whether the effort to save the church was equal to the efforts made to save those other buildings.
As we wrote earlier this year, “City Square II and Hanover (Insurance Group) deserve all of the credit for resurrecting the stalled City Square project and everything that has happened since — the Unum building, the $90 million residential development 145 Front Street at City Square, the demolition of the former Galleria [or, if you prefer, Fashion Outlets], to name just a few.
“We need to take it at its word that it has attempted to find a new use for the church. However, its lack of transparency in this process … is troubling.”
In the end, the church will fall because its owners view the proposed development as more economically feasible.
It is difficult to reconcile this view with those of proponents of building a stadium on the largely vacant 14-acre Wyman-Gordon property near Kelley Square. The stadium is, after all, a seasonal attraction, used 72 times, or less than 20 percent, of the year. Would not a mixed-use development or retail center benefit more Worcester taxpayers over the course of the year?
The discussion may turn out to be for naught; a lot of pieces need to fall into place for the WooSox to become a reality.
But if they do, and if state and city’s time and money is used to make that happen, residents of Worcester would be well within their rights to question where this assistance and support were when the fate of an historic and architecturally significant church hung in the balance.