September 2, 2013

Saco would buy church, raze it for parking spots

The council will hold a public hearing Tuesday on a proposal to pay about $399,000 for the shuttered Catholic property.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Saco City Council is considering buying a closed Catholic church and demolishing the building to make way for parking that city officials say is needed downtown.

click image to enlarge

The former Notre Dame de Lourdes Church on Cutts Avenue in Saco would be bought by the city and demolished to create more parking spaces for downtown employees who often park in nearby residential areas.

Press Herald file photo

The City Council will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday on a plan to buy the former Notre Dame de Lourdes Church and rectory on Cutts Avenue for around $399,000. Demolishing the church building would make space for as many as 18 new parking spots.

The rectory, built in 1900, would be sold to help pay for the church acquisition. The rectory could be reused for residential or commercial purposes, according to city staff.

The Notre Dame church, built in 1929, was closed three years ago, one of several Catholic churches in the Good Shepherd Parish shut down in recent years because of dwindling attendance and high maintenance costs.

City officials say removing the church building would allow for more parking for downtown employees who often park in nearby residential areas. The church parking lot, which currently has 27 spaces, is used by the public and cleared of snow in the winter by city crews.

Mayor Mark Johnston said there appears to be little interest in the property, which was originally listed for sale for $559,900 in May 2010, but reduced to $419,900 by August 2012.

"I'm a preservationist, but I also have to recognize that occasionally a tooth has to be extracted in order to save the whole district," he said. "For four years it's been waiting for someone."

Last year, the City Council considered a plan to demolish the former Central Fire Station to make more parking, but that plan was scrapped after a push by residents to save the building. The station was then sold to a developer, who is in the process of renovating the building into apartments.

Economic Development Director Peter Morelli said in a memo to city councilors that opportunities to create downtown parking are rare.

"It is a strategic move to create parking near some of the highest parking generators in the downtown," he wrote.

According to an August downtown parking survey, the areas near Pepperell Square and Middle Street, around City Hall and in the area of Saco & Biddeford Savings are among the most heavily used for parking. In Pepperell Square, one 15-minute parking spot is occupied 90 percent of the time during the day, while other spots are used less frequently.

About half of the parking spots along Main Street are in use during daytime hours, according to the survey.

Johnston said the parking issue is less about customers of stores and more about employees and residents who park for longer periods of time. When employees have to park on residential streets, it can cause a parking crunch for residents, he said.

Councilor Philip Blood said he has not made up his mind about the proposal to buy Notre Dame and would like to see a more comprehensive study of the city's parking needs.

"I need to hear more about what the plan is specifically," he said. "Even though I believe we need additional parking in the city, I don't feel we've done a comprehensive study of what kind of parking and where it should be."

Blood said he has heard little from the public about the plan for Notre Dame de Lourdes, but recognizes it could be an emotional issue for former parishioners. He said the public hearing is an important -- and welcome -- opportunity for residents to weigh in on the plan.

Johanna Hoffman, a member of the city's Historic Preservation Commission, said the commission will take no position on the plan because the church is not in the historic district.

"Personally, I think it would be a shame to see it come down, but I can't buy it," she said. "It would be a nice mixed-use building close to the downtown, but I think it requires quite a bit of repair."

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said in an email Friday that it is up to the city to determine how best to use the property if it chooses to buy it. "Certainly, despite the sadness that goes with the loss of this or any church building, the proposed plan sounds like a positive and reasonable redevelopment for the city," David Guthro said.

If city councilors approve the plan and the final purchase price is $399,000, the city will make an initial payment of $149,000, followed by two years of $125,000 annual payments. The funding would initially come from the Economic Development Fund.

Morelli said it would cost about $50,000 to demolish the church.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com

 

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