Church group agrees to buy old St. William's

The destiny of the former St. Williams Church on Dorchester Avenue may be a simple change of faith. It will not be transformed into a mixed-use residential building, a senior center or a work-training program for the developmental disabled. Instead, it is now on track to become a Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Hiep Chu, director of the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development (VietAID) - which currently owns St. Williams - signed an offer letter from Pastor Samuel Bulgin and the Northeast Conference of Seventh Day Adventist Churches on March 31, but delayed a purchase and sale agreement that was scheduled for Monday until an unspecified date.

Bay Cove Human Services, which civic and political leaders suggested might purchase the property, decided not to pursue the site.

"I did look at the space today," said Bay Cove Human Services CEO Stan Connors on Monday, just after touring the church and considering how the space would work for vocational programs his non-profit runs at Drydock Avenue. "That is not going to work for those programs. That rules it out for us buying it."

The new buyers, represented by Pastor Bulgin and other church leaders from the Roxbury Seventh Day Adventist Church - currently worshipping in a Lutheran Church on Warren Avenue - showed up at the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association on Monday.

Civic members asked that someone live in the now vacant rectory to oversee the property, and asked questions about maintenance, hours of worship and parking. Bulgin amiably agreed to meet and talk over concerns with the association's St. William's sub-committee.

"We did not know any of this was going on, that the community had not discussed this," Roxbury SDA secretary Betty Johnson told the CSHCA. "It puts us in a quagmire."

"I think the point is that we want to be a good neighbor," added David Williams, a church member, Columbia Point resident and professor of public health at Harvard University. "We want to reach out and be meaningfully involved in our community."

"The challenge to this site is that for many people in this neighborhood… they watched their church burn down and they rebuilt this church and now it's hard to watch it become someone else's place of worship," City Council President Maureen Feeney explained. "I am very disappointed that Hiep could not be here, or someone from Viet-AID. We're feeling a lot of emotion tonight, so pray for us."

Viet-AID, and its director Hiep Chu, first proposed replacing the church with over 50 units of housing and ground floor retail along Dorchester Avenue shortly after their $2 million purchase of the property in March 2007 - negotiations with CSHCA had begun well before that - but the civic group objected to the density and a number of details. The group agreed to only 36 units almost a year later at their December 2007 meeting.

Viet-AID then applied for funding from the Department of Neighborhood Development, a process that occurs only every six months. They were officially turned down on March 3. Chu said around 47 units would be needed to make the land costs manageable, to make the project financially viable, and to secure funding from the city.

"If the community would consider giving us more units, we would still consider continuing with the project," he said on Wednesday. "Specifically the fourth floor and three units in the back. Eleven more units."

Development officer David West of the Department of Neighborhood Development said a project at that size might be viable, but he would need to analyze it further to be sure. The reasons the city didn't fund the project in the recent funding round were many, West said. The availability of low-income tax credits was shrinking due to recent fluctuations in the housing market, the projected prices of Viet-AID's market-rate condos were too high compared to the declining market, and the density of the project did not make up for the costs involved.

"Once they started reducing the number of units, they had less units to sell to pay for the cost of acquisition," said West. "Despite very good efforts, it just wasn't going to work."

Now, if more units are not possible, Viet-AID wants to recoup the money it has spent, Chu said. The selling price to the Roxbury SDA Church will be in the range of $2.5 million. In the community planning process, Viet-AID spent money on land surveys, soil tests, attorneys, two different architects, consulting fees and traffic studies, according to Chu. It also paid a $15,000 a month mortgage (and would have delayed the sale if Bay Cove had agreed to pay it for them in the interim).

"We might not even break even," Chu said. "Our intention is to pay back all the expenses. We don't want to make a profit out of the church."

At Monday's CSHCA meeting, St. Williams sub-committee chair Anne Riley took issue with Viet-AID decision to sell.

"The fact of the matter is that we found out about all this by accident - " Riley said.

"I found out on a Monday and Hiep Chu said he had to do a deal by Friday," added City Council President Maureen Feeney.

"My thought is that [Hiep] didn't find out on March 4 that they needed to sell this, and we found out on March 5," Riley said.

Although Viet-AID was informed it was likely to be turned down for funding weeks before it was officially told by DND on March 3, Chu said his term was focused on trying to salvage the project at that time, crunching numbers on a hypothetical all market-rate homeownership development and other possibilities. The day DND officially told Viet-AID that they would not receive the funding, Hiep let Feeney and state Rep. Marty Walsh know of the impending sale and met with them soon after.

The Roxbury SDA was already interested in the property at that point, and had sought a site for eight years, according to Bulgin. Viet-AID let the church's first offer letter expire on March 18 to give Feeney and Walsh time to seek an alternative buyer, Bay Cove. Chu signed a second letter on March 31, a few days before Bay Cove nixed the last possibilities of purchasing the building.

"The truth is, I think [Viet-AID is] probably more disappointed than the community is, and they're probably behind the eight-ball financially," said CSHCA member Mary Hogan after speaking in defense of Viet-AID at Monday's meeting. Hogan sat on the St. Williams sub-committee but missed the last two meetings due to an illness. "They reduced the size and density of the project in several different ways. I think they were being pushed down to the point where it was predictably unprofitable… with this economy."

"We are not happy with the results of what we have to do, but clearly we have a business decision to make, and the project is weighing heavily on Viet-AID's finances," Chu said. "We did work hard, both sides, the community and Viet-AID, for a type of project that would be beneficial for everybody. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way."