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Pittsfield Community Aims To Halt Church Demolition

Jim Levulis

There has been outcry among members of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts community after plans to demolish a 73-year-old church to make way for a Dunkin’ Donuts surfaced last week.More than 1,200 people have signed an online petition aimed at halting the demolition of St. Mary the Morning Star Church on Tyler St. in Pittsfield. Cafua Management, a leading Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee, has filed site plans with the city to raze the shuttered church and two other buildings owned by the Catholic Diocese of Springfield. Darcie Sosa was involved in the successful campaign earlier this year that persuaded CVS Caremark not to demolish St. Francis Church in North Adams. After Cafua recently demolished Plunkett Elementary School in Pittsfield hoping to build another Dunkin’ Donuts, she decided to try and save a city steeple.

“I thought maybe this time we could a proactive approach in trying to save a historical, beautiful building that means not only a lot to the Morningside neighborhood, but a lot to the city of Pittsfield and the residents,” said Sosa.

The church closed in 2008 during a time when the diocese was facing tough financial times, shuttering churches and consolidating parishes to survive. Spokesman Mark Dupont says the diocese is under initial contracts with a potential buyer for the 2.6-acre property.

“So the matter really at the present time doesn’t involve the diocese,” Dupont said. “It’s between this potential buyer and the city of Pittsfield.”

Cafua’s plan includes a drive-thru, which requires special permitting by the city council. Councilor Kevin Morandi’s ward abuts the property.

“From the responses I’ve gotten from my constituents that have called me, I can’t support the plan,” said Morandi.

Last year, the council rejected Cafua’s plans for a drive-thru at the Fenn and First St. location citing traffic concerns. The company is appealing that decision in Massachusetts Land Court. Cafua, which owns locations rather close to its two potential expansions and all or parts of some 300 stores nationwide, included a traffic study to support its Tyler St. application. It finds that a Dunkin’ Donuts with a drive-thru window will have negligible impact on the roadway network. Morandi says the council will go through the same process it did last year, adding he doesn’t think the donut shop fits into the Tyler St. community.

“You have a lot of different businesses on Tyler St. but they’re not really chain-related,” Morandi said. “They’re not fast-food. I just think we can do better.”

Mayor Dan Bianchi applauds the community’s strong feelings. He adds no one else has come to the city with serious plans for the site.

“It’s a shame that they couldn’t be a different purpose, but we have to realistic,” Bianchi said. “There’s got to be an ability to be able to do something with a property that has real challenges.”

Dupont says the property has cost the Pittsfield Catholic community $200,000 since shortly after it closed and that any money from a sale stays in the local community.

“The property has been on the market since 2010,” Dupont said. “We have been open to anyone who wanted to come forward with a serious proposal. I think as is often the case people just don’t actively engage us at that point until something comes along that they don’t like then all at once they’re up in arms about it.”

With a slew of comments on Facebook and online media, Morandi is hopefully something good will come from the outcry.

“So hopefully the diocese can be persuaded,” Morandi said. “Hopefully they’ll be patient and then they’ll look to put something there that’s going to be really unique, something that’s needed and something that will really benefit that Morningside neighborhood.”

Calls to Cafua Management were not returned. The church falls less than two years shy of the city’s demolition delay ordinance, which requires a review by the Historical Commission for any structure older than 75 years. Sosa plans to reach out to preservation groups and hopes to give a presentation at a commission meeting October 7th.

“I would really love to be working with Cafua and the diocese to really find a solution to save the building and yet allow Dunkin’ Donuts to still exist in that neighborhood,” said Sosa.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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