BEVERLY – The city's historic commission on Thursday imposed a one-year delay on the demolition of the former Casa de Lucca restaurant, temporarily slowing down a developer's plan to raze an entire historic block to build an apartment building.
The Beverly Historic District Commission voted 4-0 to impose the delay, which it has the authority to do on buildings that it deems historically significant and "preferably preserved."
The commission's vote came after a public hearing at City Hall in which speakers and letter-writers overwhelming supported a delay. A total of 17 people backed the delay, while only one person spoke in favor of demolition. About 30 people attended the hearing.
Commission members noted the unusually high number of people to speak at one of their meetings. Chairman Bill Finch said the board's decisions are often based on subtle considerations.
"In this case," he said, "it's not subtle."
Finch said the building is automatically considered historically significant because it is listed as a "contributing building" in a National Register of Places Historic District.
Even the lawyer for the developer, Beverly Crossing, acknowledged that the Casa de Lucca, a former hotel built in 1894 at the corner of Rantoul Street and Railroad Avenue, is historically significant. But attorney Miranda Gooding said the company has looked at ways to renovate the building and has determined it's not "economically feasible."
The vote by the commission only delays demolition. After the one-year time period, Beverly Crossing will be free to knock down the building.
As it did earlier in the week when it presented its plans to the Ward 2 Civic Association, the company came under heavy criticism from the public for its plans to demolish all four buildings on the block, which is located across the street from the Beverly train depot, and construct a six-story apartment building.
The plan has been controversial in part because Beverly Crossing's predecessor company, Windover, nominated the area as a historic district in 2013 so that it would be eligible for more than $2 million in state and federal tax credits for restoring a building on Pleasant Street.
The company risked losing those tax credits if it demolished other buildings in the district within five years, but that time period has expired, freeing Beverly Crossing to proceed with its plans.
Hale Street resident Peter Johnson called Windover's manipulation of the tax credit program "morally bankrupt."
"Everything they do in my view will be scarred by this blatant lack of integrity," Johnson said.
Iverson Road resident John Mullady said if the demolition of Casa de Lucca proceeds, "we are condoning corporate greed, vindicating loopholes, and rewarding dishonesty."
Other residents spoke of the hope that a one-year delay will buy time to find alternatives that would lead to the building's restoration rather than destruction, perhaps with the help of money from the city's community preservation fund.
Thad Siemasko, the architect for Beverly Crossing, said the inside of Casa de Lucca has been stripped of virtually all of its historic value. But Longwood Avenue resident Matt Pujo said a building's historic value goes beyond its original features. He pointed to the Cabot Cinema and the GAR Hall as instances in which the public rallied to help save historic buildings.
"It breaks my heart when people say it's a junky old building and it's falling apart," Pujo said. "There are ways to save old buildings that are falling apart."
The only person to speak in favor of demolition was Jim Rose, who lives in Salem and owns property in Beverly. Rose praised Windover/Beverly Crossing for revitalizing Rantoul Street with its many developments.
"A lot of Rantoul Street was not particularly attractive," Rose said. "It was not a safe place to be at night. That's all changed. This is not your grandfather's Rantoul Street."
The building planned by Beverly Crossing would be six stories, with 114 apartments on the top five floors and retail space on the first floor. There would be two levels of parking underneath the building, with 116 spaces.
Beverly Crossing President Chris Koeplin told the Ward 2 Civic Association earlier this week that he is open to changing the design of the building based on residents' feedback. He said he would look into the possibly of preserving the Casa de Lucca building, which he said would cost $2.5 million, but made no promises.
Koeplin was in attendance but did not speak at the historic commission meeting.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.