Watervliet has only one “building of distinction” and as of last Tuesday, that building, known by its majestic 137-foot-high tower, may be doomed to obliteration.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the Watervliet Common Council, in a special meeting lasting only minutes, decided by a unanimous vote that historic St. Patrick’s Church and a surrounding 3.51-acre parcel will be rezoned from residential to business use. The decision clears the way for Nigro Companies, which is under contract to purchase the church property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, to demolish the 1891 church, its rectory, and school, along with six row houses, for the construction of a 40,200-square-foot Price Chopper, a parking lot, and two satellite retail outlets.
The controversial decision was applauded by congregants of nearby Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, a parish that merged with those from other closed churches in Watervliet and Green Island (and whose own church underwent an extensive renovation). Those in favor of preserving the church for future reuse appeared to be less outraged than at previous meetings, but some of them asserted that the demolition plan was “a done deal” between the Albany diocese and Nigro Companies (and its client Price Chopper), even before St. Patrick’s was put up for sale early last year. Price Chopper will use the site to relocate its store from Second Street.
At the meeting, the council stated that the city could not afford to invest in the church.
“It’s not only about the church, it’s about an entire city block in the heart of the city,” said Christine Bulmer, a Watervliet native who lives nearby and is a member of Citizens for St. Patrick’s, a grassroots organization advocating for the church’s preservation and positive reuse. “There’s very little concern about the neighborhood,” she added.
The rezoning came after modifications were made by Nigro to its original 19th Street redevelopment plan, which included screening walls, a street access change (from 23rd Street to 19th Street), and the addition of a turning lane. Members of Citizens for St. Patrick’s and other residents believe that the changes are not enough to avoid negative impact from truck traffic, noise, and garbage, in addition to the loss of an irreplaceable city landmark.
“Think how it will change the demeanor of the neighborhood,” said Bulmer of the demolitions. “We don’t even know what the front stores are going to be, and it’s not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.” The 2010 plan aims for a “vibrant community.” The 19th Street site is now referred to as a “commercial corridor.”
“Do we want this to be a place that people stop at on their way home to somewhere else?” asked Bulmer.
Though the council emphasized that the rezoning was not spot zoning, Bulmer said that the determination may be grounds for legal action. “We’re moving forward,” she said. “We have issues we’re looking at with professionals.” Among those issues, she explained, are the identities of other interested parties, the State Environmental Quality Review Act, low environmental concern, and preservation requirements. “Donating the bell is not mitigation for losing a building of that magnitude,” said Bulmer.
As to a lawsuit, she stated, “We’re prepared for that, if that’s what it takes.”
Bulmer asserted that other options for the church besides demolition were not explored. “It wasn’t marketed from a reuse point of view, it was marketed for a quick sale,” she said, adding that it should have been aggressively marketed nationally. One option that Citizens for St. Patrick’s would have proposed is selling the two-story rectory and the large school, which stretches between 5th and 6th streets, in separate transactions.
Another area of debate is the claim from the diocese and Nigro that the church needs $4 million for structural repairs. Many familiar with the church, which has been closed for a little over a year and has a relatively new roofing system, think the estimate is excessive. Bulmer said it’s not clear whether the structural report (contracted by Nigro) represents just the church or all of the buildings, though she believed that the report reflects not only stabilizing the church, but accounts “for everything” from caulking around the lavatory faucet to the door jambs.
The diocese refused the request from Citizens for St. Patrick’s for an independent pro bono evaluation by John G. Waite, a nationally known preservationist architect.
The diocese also refused to have St. Patrick’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, though the church, a Romanesque Revival modeled on the upper basilica of the Lourdes Sanctuary, passed eligibility requirements. One of the criteria for the rezoning is that the parcel does not contain a listed building.
“The city is part of a process that will demolish a historic landmark,” said Bulmer. “Why couldn’t it be part of a process to encourage reuse options? That’s their job. Because it’s an entire city block, the potential for urban revitalization with this site is phenomenal. I’m disappointed the city wasn’t part of that process from the beginning.”
UPDATE: Corrected to note that St. Patrick’s has been closed for a little over one year.