WORCESTER - After striking out in the courts and with the City Council to delay the demolition of the former Notre Dame des Canadiens Church, those fighting to save the downtown landmark are now turning to the state for help.
Ted Conna, co-leader of the Save Notre Dame Alliance, is pursuing a course of action in the hope of triggering a further review by the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs regarding the church demolition.
He has filed a "Notice of Project Change" with MEPA for the downtown mixed-use CitySquare redevelopment project, to formally inform it that the project has been changed by the plan to demolish the long-time vacant church at Salem Square.
Mr. Conna contends that CitySquare II Development Co., the owner of the church, has never informed MEPA of that change.
The filing asks EOEEA Secretary Matthew Beaton to publish the Notice of Change in MEPA's Environmental Monitor, and accept public comments concerning the need for additional MEPA review of the church demolition, which would be at the secretary's discretion.
With the demolition of Notre Dame imminent, he added that his filing also asks that MEPA's response be expedited, so that further MEPA review will not come too late to be meaningful.
"MEPA regulations authorize any person to file a Notice of Project Change, and since the developer has failed to do so since 2013, I am filing it myself," Mr. Conna said in a statement.
"As I've said before, the demolition of Notre Dame hasn't had MEPA or Massachusetts Historic Commission review because the proponents have done everything they can to avoid it - and the public participation that goes with it - by failing to disclose Notre Dame's historic status on critical documents," he added. "Notre Dame is part of the state-funded CitySquare project, and state-level review is mandatory before that historic structure's demolition because it is on the state inventory of historic assets.
Mr. Conna said his filing follows numerous attempts this May by another Save Notre Dame Alliance member, Jeffrey Cronin, to raise the same concerns with MEPA, the Massachusetts Historic Commission, and the state Economic Assistance Coordinating Council.
He said Mr. Cronin spent weeks trying to get staff at these agencies to respond to his inquiries. He said Mr. Cronin spoke with MEPA Director Deirdre Buckley at one point, but his May 31 letter to Mr. Beaton has yet to receive a response.
"We're still trying to save Notre Dame, but our effort is about more than just that," Mr. Conna said. "It's also about the integrity of the environmental-review process."
But Pamela Jonah, speaking for CitySquare II, said there is no basis for the claim being made.
"This claim was already addressed by the courts and there was no case found," she said. "As we continue invasive environmental abatement, demolition will become more visible."
Notre Dame Church, which was built in 1929, has been vacant since 2007 when it was closed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester.
CitySquare II purchased the twin-spired Romanesque Revival church from the Worcester Diocese in 2010 and later incorporated the church property as part of its overall 22-acre CitySquare project site in the heart of the downtown.
While CitySquare II has repeatedly said that no state money was used to acquire the Notre Dame Church property or fund the demolition of the church, the Save Notre Dame Alliance contends that the CitySquare project is a major beneficiary of state funding.
Mr. Conna pointed out that the Notre Dame property has been part of the CitySquare project area since 2012.
"Notre Dame is part of the state-funded CitySquare project, and state-level review is mandatory before that historic structure's demolition because it is on the state inventory of historic assets," Mr. Conna said.
"State funds helped pay for all the new streets in CitySquare, including Trumbull Street, which borders and adds frontage to the Notre Dame parcel," he added. "This is indirect financial assistance, which triggers the review process."
Preliminary demolition work, including remediation work, has been ongoing for several weeks. But last month, John R. Kelly, the city's commissioner of Inspectional Services, said the church building is "past the point of no return."
Mr. Kelly said he and two staff members from his office did an evaluation of the building and specifically looked at life safety issues associated with the building and its overall condition.
He emphasized they did not look at the structural integrity of the building because neither he nor those who accompanied him on the inspection are structural engineers.
Mr. Kelly said they did find, however, that the building is "unhealthy and dangerous," adding that stones are falling off the sides of building's veneer.
He said the building is also open to the weather now that many of the windows have been removed as part of the preliminary demolition work and the roof is leaking.
Last month, a Superior Court judge denied a motion they had sought for an injunction to prevent the demolition of Notre Dame Church before the state review being sought by those fighting to save the church is completed.
Days later, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has denied an appeal filed by the group of that judge’s decision.