SALEM — Although the $20 million St. Joseph Church development seems, at times, to be a story without an ending, the final chapter may have been written this week in Boston.
The 61-year-old church, it appears, is coming down.
State and federal officials met Tuesday in a state office building to consider an alternative plan submitted by Historic Salem Inc., a private preservation group, to save a church that is part of a former parish property considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
The developer, a branch of the Archdiocese of Boston, bought the Lafayette Street site in 2005 and has proposed demolishing the former church and convent and putting up a new building with 51 affordable apartments.
It has secured financing and local approvals and won a court fight, and now awaits this final preservation review approval.
HSI submitted its own plan to build housing inside the church.
State housing and historic preservation officials concluded weeks ago that a thorough historic preservation review had been conducted and that the church could not be saved, but delayed action when a federal agency, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, decided to join the review process at the request of HSI.
The Advisory Council, which took part in Tuesday's meeting by phone from its offices in Washington, D.C., is able only to offer an opinion, since the final decision rests with the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
The state agency sounds like it is ready to conclude the process.
"It appears that a memorandum of agreement governing the redevelopment of the property will be executed by the end of this month," a DHCD spokeswoman said.
Contacted yesterday, a spokesman for the Advisory Council, the federal agency that oversees historic preservation reviews, said only that "the (state) process had been done in an appropriate way."
In other words, the housing project can go forward as long as an agreement is reached about what steps need to be taken to preserve the history of a site where the city's French-Canadian community founded a parish in 1873.
Those steps are expected to include plaques and other ways of recording parish history. They may also include preservation restrictions being placed on the two remaining properties, the former rectory and school.
The developer, which is losing money every day this project is delayed, hopes to have the agreement signed by the end of the month.
"This is clearly good news for the city, and especially for The Point neighborhood," stated Lisa Alberghini, president of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, the Catholic Church developer. "The six-month (historic preservation review) process has been extremely thorough, and that was reaffirmed at the meeting (Tuesday). We are grateful that the goals of the neighborhood are finally closer to becoming a reality."
HSI said it is "dissatisfied" with the decision but is committed to working on the final preservation agreement.
"We think reusing the church is a far better outcome for Salem," said Emily Udy, preservation project manager for HSI. "We think it is a better outcome for the neighborhood and honors the neighborhood more. ...
"It's important to note," Udy said, "that the housing is great. The housing is not, for us, the issue. It's the demolition or reuse of the building."
There is no appeal to the historic review process. However, it is not known whether HSI plans to pursue other options.
The city is hopeful the end is near on a project that began seven years ago.
Mayor Kim Driscoll stressed the need to "bring closure" to the review process.
"The church is closed," she said, "and we need to move forward with the development project for this neighborhood."