WORCESTER - With the start of structural demolition of the former Notre Dame des Canadiens Church said to be "very imminent," no reprieve is in sight for the downtown landmark.
The City Council Tuesday night chose not to support an appeal made by the Save Notre Dame Alliance, which asked it to authorize the city manager to negotiate the transfer of ownership of the church from CitySquare II Development Co. LLC to the city.
The group also asked the council to authorize the city to commit up to $15 million in public money to repurpose the church as a multicultural center/performance and event space.
After lengthy discussion, the council voted to place the two petitions on "file," a move that effectively placed them in the parliamentary wastebasket.
While several city councilors said they have agonized over what to do with the former church, they said they could not support use of taxpayer money to acquire the property and redevelop it.
Councilors also concurred with Mayor Joseph M. Petty's public statement last week when he said it is "simply not feasible" for the city to spend taxpayer dollars on the church when it is already facing some $500 million in costs for two new high schools and another $70 million in deferred maintenance to existing public school buildings.
The City Council was told that to "mothball" the church for an indefinite period would cost as much as $1 million upfront, followed by annual carrying costs and the loss of tax revenue from the property.
The city receives about $40,000 in real estate taxes on that property, according to City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. He said if the city were to acquire the property it would end up losing that tax revenue.
He said Hanover Insurance Group, principal investor in the CitySquare redevelopment project, had indicated it might be willing to turn the church over to the city as long as it was to be used for city purposes. He said Hanover did not want to see the city "flip" the property to a private developer and make money from that sale.
District 2 Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson said an awful lot of energy has been expended finding another use for Notre Dame Church - by city councilors, the city manager and advocates for sparing the church from demolition. But she added that nothing viable has emerged and time is no longer on their side.
"We have done everything we can do," Ms. Mero-Carlson said. "As leaders, we truly don't know what the numbers are. We have gone and done whatever we can do."
Councilor-at-Large Morris A. Bergman pointed out that the city does not own the Notre Dame property and, as a result, its ability to change things and halt the demolition is very limited.
"All of us have tried hard not to tell you that our hands are tied, but our hands are tied," Mr. Bergman said. "I don't know how we can ask the city manager to take the property when no process is in place to do that."
Mr. Petty said he has spent the past three weeks trying to come up with a solution that would save the church from demolition, but he said the potential cost to the city makes it unfeasible.
He pointed out that the city already has to invest substantial money each year in maintaining the vacant Worcester Memorial Auditorium and the former Lincoln Square Boys' Club building. He said another substantial taxpayer subsidy has to be spent on Union Station each year.
The mayor added that he was concerned about the precedent that might be set if the city used taxpayer dollars to buy and redevelop a former church. He said he could see other groups then approaching the city for the same consideration to save other churches from demolition.
"At the end of the day, I thought this was the right decision for the city of Worcester and the taxpayers of Worcester," Mr. Petty said. "I'd like to save the church, but we don't own it and we are facing many other issues."
CitySquare II bought the twin-spired Romanesque Revival church from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester in 2010 and incorporated the church property as part of its overall 22-acre CitySquare project site in the heart of the downtown. Notre Dame, which was built in 1929, has been vacant since 2007, when it was closed by the diocese.
Preliminary demolition work, which mostly involves environmental remediation, has been going on for the past several weeks. Mr. Augustus told the City Council that it is his understanding that work on the structural demolition of the church is "very imminent."
"Hanover has made it clear they are not interested in delaying (the demolition) process," the manager said.
More than two dozen people addressed the council in the hope of persuading members to provide a reprieve for the church by having the city step forward and acquire it.
Ted Conna, one of the co-leaders of the Save Notre Dame Alliance, said he sees no reason why demolition cannot be halted at this point because the developer of CitySquare has no immediate plans for the property. He said it could very well end up as a vacant lot for a long time.
"If they take Notre Dame down, do you think it will be replaced by anything that people will fight to save some 50 years from now?" Mr. Conna asked. "We all know that we may lose this battle, but our integrity demands that we continue the battle. Notre Dame is irreplaceable."
Barbara G. Haller, another co-leader of the Save Notre Dame Alliance, appealed to the council to listen to what the residents of Worcester want and find it in their power to save what is important to them.
"We believe this building can be saved responsibly," she said.