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Is Nothing Sacred?

The proposed demolition of historic St. Patrick’s Church in Watervliet raises quality of life issues for its neighboring community—and for the region

by Ann Morrow on April 26, 2012 · 10 comments


St. Patrick's Church, photo by Julia Zave

It was picture perfect: A young family enjoying the balmy spring weather with an evening stroll. Heading down the sidewalk of 19th Street in Watervliet, Eric Fagan, Jill Fagan, and their daughter Amber walked toward the tree-lined front lawn of St. Patrick’s, turning to look at the stately, soaring church. When asked if they knew about the vacated church’s possible fate, Jill answers firmly, “We don’t want it torn down. No one does.”

The Fagans, who have lived on nearby 8th Street for eight years, were not parishioners of the church, but they do consider themselves neighbors. “We like it because it’s old,” says Jill. “Watervliet is very small and this is the oldest thing here.” Eric adds, “It’s the most massive structure here. You can see the tower coming down Rt. 2.”

The Fagans only found out about the proposal to demolish the church when they received a letter three weeks ago from the Albany Catholic Diocese explaining that it would be too expensive to repair and maintain the building. “We especially don’t want it torn down for a Price Chopper,” says Jill. “That’ll bring in more riff-raff.”

“I was shocked the historical society didn’t do anything, that it’s not registered,” continues Eric. “We would’ve signed to get it listed [on the National Register of Historic Places]. We would’ve helped.”

“She likes it here,” says Jill, looking over at five-year-old Amber, who ran ahead of her parents to skip across the park-like churchyard.

The letter was part of the announcement of the sale of St. Patrick’s to Nigro Companies, a retail development and management company. Nigro plans to demolish the 2.9-acre parcel, which includes the church rectory and school, along with six historic townhouses on 23rd Street behind it. In its place the company has applied to build a 40,200-square-foot retail facility for Price Chopper, a large parking lot, and a smaller retail strip fronting 19th Street. The advantages, beside payment to the parish (a below-market sum, according to some sources), would be to provide a site for Price Chopper to open a new supercenter with more parking than its current site in a dilapidated strip mall on 2nd Street, which would put the property on the tax rolls.

But at what cost to the community? Firstly, the tax revenue will be an increase from the former Price Chopper, not a new source. And revenue from the strip, which does not yet have tenants, will be offset by losses from the demolished townhouses and other residences that may become vacant if homeowners decide they don’t want to live beside a 24-hour store and lit-all-night parking lot. There’s also the possible failure of nearby small businesses unable to compete with a supercenter. And many residents are not convinced that the convenience of a big box store is worth the destruction of an irreplaceable landmark.
“It’s going to rip out the heart of the city,” says Christine Bulmer of Citizens for St. Patrick’s, a group advocating for the church’s preservation. “It’s a beautiful property, and it’s in the center of town, on our Main Street. The church isn’t in as bad a shape as people think,” she adds, referring to the parish’s claim that it needs millions.

After the development proposal was made public, Bulmer wrote to the Watervliet Historical Society about the church’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. She didn’t receive a reply, and sent the request herself. Being registered is an important step toward qualifying for grants. Even without a plaque, however, the building’s historical and architectural significance is hard to dispute.

St. Patrick’s was constructed in 1890 to accommodate a growing congregation of Irish immigrants who came to work on the Erie Canal. Inspired by the famed Grotto of Lourdes in France, the parish pastor, who had been to Lourdes on pilgrimage, commissioned an architectural replica, designed by Edward Loth from Troy. Because of a stonecutter’s strike, the façade was built from brick. The distinctive terra di Siena hued bricks were made up the hill on 19th Street. The majestic front tower contains a Meneely bell. Cast on Broadway, the 11,000-pound bell is a reminder that the bell foundry esteemed the world over was originally founded in Watervliet, known then as West Troy.

The church’s portico entrance on 19th Street is especially appealing, with colonnades and a dramatic Tudor door arch. “It’s an asset to our community,” says Bulmer. “How many buildings do we have of this caliber?”

Photo by Julia Zave

Bulmer lives a few blocks away, in the house she was born in. She says that though she was married in the church and her son was baptized there, her concerns are not sentimental, emphasizing that group’s aim is not to return the church to active service. “I’m approaching this from a preservationist point of view. A supercenter in that location will not blend into the character of what we want this community to be.”

And it’s not good urban planning. Study after study has shown that potential residents are attracted to areas that are unique and have a vibrant cultural life. New urbanist types might’ve been especially appreciative of the brownstones on 23rd Street and their ornate turrets and pediments. Nigro Companies’ block-long 19th Street Redevelopment Project has its adherents, and promises to create at least 40 (mostly part-time) service jobs, but it’s unlikely that it’ll be much of a draw for the kinds of new residents and innovative private businesses that lead to a vital local economy. And in 20 years or so, when it deteriorates as strip malls do, what then?

“They’re destroying a whole neighborhood and they’re moving it along as fast as possible so everyone can get their money,” says Bulmer. “If I was a city leader, the first thing I would’ve done was to contact a historic preservation [organization].

“We don’t dispute the church’s right to sell it, but we need to protect it as a visible landmark of our part in the history of the Capital District,” she continues. “You can see it from Troy, you can see it from the Mohawk-Hudson bike path, from 787. It certainly deserves more examination of the options.”

Eileen Anderson was a member of St. Patrick’s parish for 60 years, and describes how the church was built with bricks donated by the parishioners, at a dollar a brick. “We were upset that it closed as a worship site, but we got over it,” she says. “But then when they said they would demolish it . . . it’s heartbreaking.”

It’s also not financially savvy. “Historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development,” writes historic conservation economist Donovan Rypkema. One example is that repairing and rebuilding historic elements means that dollars are spent locally instead of at distant manufacturing plants.

The church was closed in September of last year, and the demolition plan was announced several months later. It was especially unexpected, says Anderson, because a little over ten years ago, the parish had been promised that if they raised the money for a new roof, the church would not be closed. They raised $800,000 and a new copper roof was installed. “Our family tithed a few thousand dollars, most everyone did,” she says.

“It’s especially sad for the families that go back generations,” she says. The church’s stained glass memorial windows, inscribed with the families’ names, were sold to a church-goods store in Long Island.

The majority of the many area churches that were closed have been sold. “This is the only church we know of that’s being torn down,” she continues. “And it’s been closed less than a year. What’s the rush? Hold on, give it some time, someone else will come along. Churches like this can stand for a very long time.

“There are only three churches that look like this in the world,” she adds. In addition to St. Patrick’s, there is another Lourdes replica church in Shanghai, China, that’s a major draw for pilgrims and tourists.

Anderson’s appreciation for the building is matched by her environmental concerns if it is demolished, mentioning the burden it will put on the landfill, and the increased traffic and debris from the supercenter. City officials are elected to protect the quality of the life of their constituents, not ruin it, she continues. “Where else does a local government allow a supercenter in the middle of a residential area? They’re always on the outskirts of town.”

Rev. L. Edward Deimeke, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish on 25th Street (a consolidation of the area’s closed parishes), says that the $4 million expense required to preserve the building came from water damage from the heavy winter of two years ago, which caused leakage from the roof and destabilized windows. A recent engineering report discovered new damage to two of the buttresses. The engineering inspection was paid for by Nigro Companies.

“You hate to see a structure like that come down, but no one has taken the initiative in two years to do something. No one has offered a good alternative, or to say how they are going to save the structure,” says Deimeke.

“We have to know what we are going to do with it?” asks Pat Falaro, a member of Citizens for St. Patrick’s. “Well, we don’t know what we’re going to do with it right now. Right now the prime objective is not to have it torn down.” Falaro lives directly across the street from the church and was a parish member who contributed to the new roof. “I didn’t think to get it in writing when the bishop promised that if the money was raised, the church would not be closed,” he says.

And as a former construction supervisor, Falaro has serious concerns about the structural risks of demolishing the 100-foot-high building. Such as aftershock, the diversion of sewer and storm run-off from underneath the church grounds to the foundations of nearby homes, and the debris, some of it toxic, from the implosion. “I’m not risking my health for their profit,” he says. “If they use dynamite, forget it.” That neighboring homes will be devalued is a given, and Falaro anticipates an increase in absentee landlord ownership.

Nigro Companies has developed cookie-cutter strip malls from the Catskills to Queensbury, and has demolished historic structures before, including the 1836 DeFreest House to make way for a Target for East Greenbush Commons. But the demolition of a prominent, stable and historic building with deep ties to the community such as St. Patrick’s, “sets a negative precedent,” says Bulmer.

Nigro Companies alone owns and manages several million square feet of commercial development in the greater Capital Region; at some point, local governments and leaders are going to have to ask how many more millions they want to give up to an unvarying grid of strip malls, big box stores, and chain eateries.

“Watervliet is the symbol of ‘Enough is enough,’” says Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation. “Attention is being paid all over the Capital Region.” HAF is lending expertise in advocacy and education to the Citizens group. Holland considers the demolition to be a knee-jerk reaction. “The proposal should be on what is the best and highest use of the land,” she says.

Whether the redevelopment, and the church’s demolition, get the green light will be determined by a decision to change the neighborhood’s zoning from residential to commercial. The city council passed the decision to the county planning board, with an outcome expected sometime next month.

As Falaro watches the church’s organ being carted out, he says ruefully, “I bought a house across the street from the church because I thought it would always be there.”