Viet-AID puts St. William's church property on the market

Plans to redevelop the former St. William's Church on Dorchester Avenue have been derailed and the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development, the non-profit owner of the site, is looking to sell.

"We're looking for a way out," said Hiep Chu, Viet-AID's director. "Obviously selling is one option because the development is not working."

The imminent sale and array of potential buyers has neighborhood activists from Savin Hill and Fields Corner pressing on Viet-AID for different outcomes, with elected officials on both sides of the issue. The situation puts the community development corporation in a very difficult spot. Chu said he wants to do the right thing by the neighborhood, but also faces financial realities that cannot be ignored.

Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association's adamant stance on low density makes selling to a private developer like David Higgins - who has shown interest in St. William - unlikely to pan out, according to Chu. Higgins was traveling in Europe this week, and could not be reached.

Another interested buyer, Bay Cove Human Services, needs more time to consider making a bid.

This makes an offer from a nearby church a relatively tempting possibility for Viet-AID; a particularly clear and sure path to recouping their investment compared to others they could choose. Churches require no zoning approval from the city and merely have to meet certain parking requirements, which may or may not be required at the St. Williams site.

The Reporter has confirmed that the Roxbury Seventh Day Adventist Church, currently worshipping at a Lutheran Church on Warren Avenue near Dudley Square, is interested in the property.

"They are still in negotiations and I'm not sure where it is at," said George Bulgin in a phone interview last week. His brother Samuel Bulgin is pastor at the Roxbury church. "They have been looking for the past year or so," he said.

On March 14, the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association (CSHCA) sent a letter to Viet-AID requesting a delay of the sale for a "minimum of 90 days, to allow all and any potential buyers the opportunity to conduct the necessary due diligence in order to ascertain their ability or non-ability to purchase the site."

The letter specifically named Bay Cove Human Services as a preferred buyer. But it is a preference that is not likely shared by some in Fields Corner, where Bay Cove operates Kit Clark Senior Services.

State Rep. Martin Walsh originally set up a meeting between Viet-AID and Bay Cove, with the hope that Bay Cove would be interested in buying the St. William property and keeping their current site at 1500 Dorchester Ave. "That would be a great win-win if they could pull it off. I don't want a hole in Fields Corner at all."

City Council President Maureen Feeney is also supporting the Bay Cove possibility, advocating for it and the 90-day delay.

But Walsh's win-win possibility seems a long-shot after talking with Bay Cove COO Bill Sprague.

"We have been part of Fields Corner for a long time, we would obviously want to think long and hard about relocating a center that serves so many people," Sprague said.

Asked if a relocation of Kit Clark would be likely if Bay Cove did buy St. William's, he said "from a space utilization perspective, that's probably what would make the most sense for us to look at. But it's very, very preliminary right now. I wouldn't even want to put odds on whether it could happen or not."

"Kit Clark is an integral part of Fields Corner and we would hate to see them leave," said Evelyn Darling, director of Fields Corner Main Streets. "Looking long-term, there's some interest from Bay Cove in redeveloping [Kit Clark's current] site, and that would be beneficial for the community."

Asked about Fields Corner concerns about losing Kit Clark, CSHCA president Deirdre Habershaw replied, "As rude as it sounds, I don't think that's our concern to think about. I think it does weigh on the mind of Viet-AID, because they are a Fields Corner-centered organization."

Catherine "Kit" Clark, the namesake of the senior center was also a very active member of the CSHCA for many years, added Habershaw.

Fields Corner area resident and City Councillor Sam Yoon responded to Reporter inquiries with a prepared statement.

"Viet-AID has been operating in good faith with the community all along the way," said Yoon. "It would be unfair for us to ask them to take a financial loss at this point."

Viet-AID operates a bustling Vietnamese community center on Charles Street in Fields Corner and has built a number of affordable housing and commercial developments around the neighborhood. One future project on Bloomfield Street and Geneva Avenue aims to fill a vacant lot that has been an eyesore in that community for decades.

In order to recoup their investment at St. William's, Chu said Viet-AID would need more than the $2 million price they paid the archdiocese just over a year ago.

Habershaw is upset about an imminent Viet-AID pull out, chalking it up to "current market conditions" rather than the CSHCA stance on a lower density development.

"The whole situation is really unfair," Habershaw said. "We had a good working relationship with Viet-AID. [The plan for 36 units of housing] got unanimous approval at our meeting. We had worked so hard for so long and now it's for nothing."

According to Chu, the development would need somewhere in the range of 50 housing units to be economically viable. Asked if Viet-AID would reconsider the sale and go back to the drawing board with the CSHCA, he said it would be hard to see a way a development that Viet-AID found doable would get their approval, and all but ruled it out.