MassDevelopment

Our Opinion: Church building plan boosts city, street

December 22, 2017 : The Berkshire Eagle


Lo, the long hoped-for resurrection of one of the great edifices of Pittsfield and the Berkshires shall come to pass. After lying dormant for the past nine years since its closing by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, St. Mary the Morning Star Church has been sold to developer David Carver, who will — with help from the city of Pittsfield and MassDevelopment — convert the former house of worship and its ancillary buildings into "market-rate" living spaces (Eagle, December 22.)

The project is a blessing for a city that finds itself chronically short of affordable housing for the multitude, which must be addressed if the city is to keep and attract residents. The businesses along the Tyler Street corridor — which St. Mary's has anchored for over a century — are sure to benefit also from the daily living requirements of the building's new residents. Foot traffic is vital to any urban neighborhood containing a mix of retail and housing. 

St. Mary's, a magnificent example of the Lombard Romanesque architectural style found in so many of the region's historic mills and other large brick structures, has survived at least one attempt to raze it and use the property for the dispensing of doughnuts and coffee. To its credit Cafua Management abandoned those plans in response to public outcries in protest. Now, this faded gem stands to be restored to its former glory and converted to provide shelter, which is an apt purpose for a building that, for so many generations, offered spiritual shelter to the members of its parish family.

In an example of how a public-private partnership can yield positive results even when prospects look dim, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer plans to suggest to the Pittsfield City Council a tax-increment financing proposal that would exempt the property for five years, which, along with the diocese's fire-sale price of $500,000 for the entire property, improves Mr. Carver's chances of realizing a profit from the undertaking. If successful, the project, the fourth Mr. Carver has undertaken involving turning former church buildings into housing, will be consistent with the city's Master Plan, which calls for the revitalization of historic neighborhoods and pedestrian-friendly uses. Moreover, if the project is built and the units sold, the taxes they yield will constitute a substantial addition to city coffers, and will ideally encourage other development projects in the neighborhood.

St. Mary's is no ordinary empty building, for any number of reasons. The defunct church's surrounding community, which includes its former parishioners, ardently fought for and secured its survival during the dormant years. Ad hoc groups like Friends of St. Mary's kept the faith when hope was in short supply. With the building showing signs of deterioration, the renovation agreement is certainly well-timed.

As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, "And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart." Without the work of those who loved St. Mary's, this timely Christmas present to the neighborhood and the city would never have seen the light.