Neighbors split over St. Peter’s convent development

St. Peter’s parishioners and Bowdoin-Geneva neighbors voiced both strong support and opposition during a discussion last Wednesday on the development of the parish’s former convent, located at the western end of the St. Peter’s campus near the corner of Bowdoin and Mt. Ida Streets.

Caritas Communities of Braintree has proposed turning the building into 32 units of single-room affordable housing on the 20,000 square-foot site. The Boston Redevelopment Authority held the meeting at the St. Peter’s Teen Center to gather community input before the agency makes its decision on the project. Due to the objections of some residents, the BRA extended the public comment period for the project an additional week.

The convent building has been empty and for sale or lease for more than five years. So far, Caritas Communities has been the only developer to make a written offer to buy the property.

The Caritas Communities website notes that the company specializes in providing long-term managed rooming houses for working people and improves neighborhoods by providing much needed single-occupancy housing.

BRA senior project manager Lance Campbell tried to keep the discussion focused on the convent proposal and not the greater issue of the parish itself. Parishioners have worried for years that St. Peter’s will be forced to close due to economic challenges.

Rev. Jack Ahern, tri-parish administrator of the church, said at the meeting there are no plans to close, but if the convent and adjacent rectory properties are not sold, that could threaten the continued operation of St. Peter’s.

Ahern told the Reporter after the meeting that the archdiocese would place the proceeds from the sale in a trust that can only be used by the parish. “The sale of the convent and rectory will allow us to set up a trust so the church remains open,” Ahern said. The archdiocese recently arranged with the city of Boston for an abatement of $31,300 in property taxes for the convent and rectory sites. “We can’t afford the taxes, never mind maintain the church,” Ahern said.

Caritas Communities executive director Mark Winkeller said his company has worked on several developments in Dorchester, including projects on Center and Sydney streets and a collaboration with Viet-Aid. “We want our residents to be good neighbors, pay rent on time, and behave the way you want them to behave,” he said.

“We don’t have any plans for the rectory at this point aside from housing the Parish priest,” he added.

Felicia Wells said that she lives next door to the convent and wanted to know how construction would affect neighbors. He replied that work on the building will only take place during the day, that weekend work won’t be necessary.

“We’ve done buildings in this neighborhood before, we think we know what we’re doing,” Winkeller said.

Vanessa Muskie, a five-year resident of the neighborhood, spoke in favor of the project.

“Vacant properties in our community are cancers,” Muskie said, adding that having residents in the building with an on-site manager would benefit the community.

Much of the criticism levied at Winkeller dealt with the density that would result from fitting 32 units into the old convent.

Davida Andelman, chair of the Greater Geneva Neighborhood Association, said the archdiocese never engaged the community to see what neighbors wanted to put in the convent. Andelman said she was concerned that the BRA gave very little notice before the July 4 holiday that the meeting was scheduled, but thanked the agency for handling it well and extending the comment period. “We’re not saying this project shouldn’t go on, just that it’s too dense,” she said.

Michael Pratt, president of the Meeting House Hill Civic Association, said he was disappointed in Caritas Communities for not including input from the community in the project plans. Pratt called talk of the church closing “scare tactics,” and criticized Winkeller for not attending a follow-up meeting with his group after hearing the initial plan.

“Did you see the size of these units? This is practically a rooming house,” Pratt said.

City Councilor Maureen Feeney called the sale arrangement “a delicate balance” between the needs of the church and frustrated residents. Feeney said there are “issues on the table that we can work through,” and added that she would support a more diverse economic scale for the property than just low-income rooms.