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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

Because it’s not “just a building” – considerations for church conversions

April 22nd, 2015  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Dan Adams’ recent piece in the Boston Globe highlights the complexities associated with developing vacant churches – the latest article of several reporting on a development trend playing out across the city. In recent years, several churches have closed their doors permanently in Boston, citing low attendance, high maintenance costs and/or consolidation efforts of the Catholic Archdiocese. Combine these financial sustainability challenges with the fact that many of these buildings are located on what’s now prime real estate, and it’s no surprise that developers see opportunities in buying up these lots.

However, churches aren’t just any building to those in surrounding neighborhoods, as evidenced by the reaction of community members throughout the city when church buildings are threatened by demolition or significant changes to their exterior.

Consider the outcry among South Boston residents in response to a plan to tear down the shuttered St. Augustine’s Church and erect a new building in its place. The Alliance was pleased to facilitate dialogue between the developer and the neighborhood, which ultimately convinced him to pursue an adaptive reuse option – an alternative that hadn’t initially been considered. Renovation that preserves St. Augustine’s exterior and creates condos inside is currently underway. In Jamaica Plain, residents formed the Hyde Square Task Force to purchase the historic Blessed Sacrament Church after years of holding off redevelopment plans, which at one point included market-rate housing, offsetting affordable housing elsewhere on the redeveloped church compound.

Such examples suggest that residents do value the presence of these buildings as a critical connection to their neighborhood’s past, when churches frequently served as vibrant centers of community life. Church buildings hold deep, emotional ties for people, families, and neighborhoods; in many cases they define the communities that grew up around these religious and cultural icons.

With such strong cultural bonds to these buildings, one can understand the responses brought about by proposals to change or even demolish them – reactions that are often more vocal than efforts to bring about change in other parts Boston. Therefore, the debate surrounding how to appropriately develop underutilized historic buildings is heightened in these situations. Adapting churches to new uses reinforces the importance of striking a balance between preserving the historical integrity of culturally significant buildings, while meeting the needs of Boston’s communities today. The sensitivity required for successful church conversions simply highlights the necessity to work collaboratively and to maintain an open dialogue between neighborhoods, developers, architects and other key stakeholders.

To be sure, converting churches into housing or community space frequently includes a unique set of challenges. But if that dialog and the compromises that result allow us to continue to use and enjoy the buildings that have served as the heart of Boston for the past century or more, those are challenges worth overcoming.

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