WORCESTER — Refusing to give up the fight to spare the former Notre Dame des Canadiens Church from an imminent date with the wrecking ball, a group of residents is now looking to the courts to at least temporarily block its demolition.
Thirteen residents, including community leaders and members of the Save Notre Dame Alliance, filed a civil action Tuesday in Worcester Superior Court, seeking an injunction to prevent the demolition until "such time as the legally required impact review process" is completed.
Because Notre Dame Church is listed on the inventory of historic and archeological assets of the state, the group contends that it cannot be demolished as part of a development using state funds without an exhaustive public review by state agencies to look for alternatives.
The suit against CitySquare II Development Co. LLC, the owner of the church and a subsidiary of Hanover Insurance Group, which is the principal investor in the CitySquare redevelopment project, alleges that such a review never took place and is in violation of the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.
The group contends that CitySquare II never filed the required notice with the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs or the Massachusetts Historical Commission to initiate the review as required by law. The plaintiffs are represented by Worcester lawyers Hector E. Pineiro and Robert A. Scott.
A court hearing on the suit has been scheduled for Thursday afternoon at the Worcester County Courthouse.
The court action comes the day after City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. told the City Council that the start of the structural demolition of the church is "very imminent."
While preliminary demolition work involving mostly environmental remediation has been under way for several weeks, Mr. Augustus did not have an exact date when work will begin to take down the building.
If the court grants a permanent injunction, CitySquare II would not be allowed to demolish the church while the required review is underway, according to Ted D. Conna, one of the co-leaders of the Save Notre Dame Alliance.
He said the group hopes the review process will identify alternatives to demolition, so the downtown landmark can be saved and restored.
"If that happens, Notre Dame will add both economic and cultural value to everything around it," Mr. Conna said. "But even if the review process does not produce any new solution to save Notre Dame, we felt it was important on principle to defend the law — in this case, the law that says that when state agencies and state funding are involved, the state’s historic assets cannot be demolished without proper review.
"I’ve been asking myself for months, how can it be legal that a building of such historic importance could be demolished without Massachusetts Historic Commission review?" he added. "Well, it turns out that it’s not legal."
Pamela Jonah, speaking on behalf of CitySquare II, said it is in the process of reviewing the complaint and will respond at the appropriate time.
Meanwhile, Mr. Augustus said he is "confident" that Hanover/CitySquare II has obtained all necessary permits for the CitySquare project, including demolition of the former Notre Dame church building
The Save Notre Dame Alliance appealed to the City Council Tuesday night to authorize the city manager to negotiate the transfer of ownership of the former church from CitySquare II 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.
But the council took no action on the two petitions and voted to place them on "file" - a move that effectively placed them in the parliamentary wastebasket.
While several city councilors said they do not want to see the church demolished, they added they could not support the use of taxpayer money to acquire the property and redevelop it.
Many also came out in support of a statement made by Mayor Joseph M. Petty 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 the construction of two new high schools and another $70 million in deferred maintenance to existing public school buildings."
While the church preservationists did not get the outcome they were hoping for from the City Council, it has not deterred them from their fight to save the church.
"Some may call us obstructionist for bringing this action, but I’d rather be called that than be a ‘destructionist,'" Mr. Conna said. "I think an obstructionist tries to prevent someone else from creating something, but that’s not what’s going on here at all.
"We are trying to prevent the defendants from destroying something of great value to our community, with no plans to replace it with anything other than a vacant lot," he added. "How is that progress? I think ‘protectionist’ and ‘preservationist’ are far more accurate words for what we are trying to do, which is to protect and preserve an important historic building for the Worcester community."
CitySquare II has owned the former church since 2010 when it bought it from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester, which closed the church in 2007.
During that time, CitySquare II says it has made repeated efforts to save the church by seeking a developer for it, but no viable proposals have emerged since then.
Mr. Augustus told the City Council Tuesday night the developer has fulfilled all city requirements and needs no further approval to take the church down.
While the church is not listed on the state or national registers of historic places, it is listed on the Massachusetts Cultural Resources Information System. That made it, built in 1929, subject to the city’s demolition delay ordinance, which automatically puts a one-year hold on the razing of historic structures.
The one-year hold began with submission of the waiver application, which was filed April 2016. CitySquare II sought a waiver to the delay, but it was denied by the Historical Commission.
That meant the earliest the church could be taken down was April 2017, but a permit to demolish the church was not sought until this March, nearly a year after the expiration of the demolition delay.
Gary V. Murray of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.