YMCA scrambling to place residents after plan falls through

A rendering of the planned Cabot Street YMCA expansion project. The Y is scrambling to find a temporary home for residents during construction, which is scheduled to start in August.

BEVERLY — The YMCA of the North Shore is scrambling to find a temporary home for residents of the Cabot Street YMCA after a plan to use a nearby former convent fell through.

The Y is about to embark on a $22 million renovation to expand affordable housing at the century-old Cabot building in downtown Beverly. It had planned to move 26 residents to the former St. Mary’s convent, just a block away, during the 14 months of construction.

But officials from the Y and Harborlight Community Partners, who are teaming up on the project, said the Beverly Catholic Collaborative has backed away from the arrangement. The agencies are now trying to find other locations for the residents to stay, a task made more difficult by the coronavirus crisis.

The YMCA sent out a press release this week in which YMCA of the North Shore President and CEO Chris Lovasco said he was “disappointed” that the deal with the church could not be finalized.

“We are doing all we can to keep the disruption to our residents at a minimum and moving them just steps away to the vacant St. Mary’s space temporarily was a wonderful way to keep their anxiety and worry at bay,” Lovasco said in the release.

The project - scheduled to start this summer - would add a floor to the Cabot Street YMCA and provide 67 studio-like apartments and five rooms dedicated to people facing homelessness and individuals with developmental disabilities. The current building, which was built in 1901, has 45 single-rooms with shared kitchens.

Lovasco said the deal to house residents at the convent fell through when church leadership changed hands.

“It’s unfortunate,” Lovasco said in an interview. “I understand it’s their choice.”

The Rev. David Michael, who arrived as pastor in October, said he had just begun to learn about the needs of the Beverly Catholic Collaborative’s three parishes when he was informed of the Y’s proposal to lease the convent.

“I was concerned that this was a consequential decision that had not yet been thoroughly vetted,” he said in an email.

With St. Mary Star of the Sea’s 150th anniversary coming up, as well as a special Year of the Eucharist, Rev. Michael said he hoped the convent could be renovated and used for parish meeting space, religious education and faith formation classrooms. The St. Mary’s parish’s finance council supported his decision, which he said was “in the best interest of the Collaborative moving forward.”

The convent was once used as housing for nuns who taught at St. Mary’s School. The school closed in 2018 and merged with St. John the Evangelist School to form The Saints Academy.

The school and convent buildings were placed on the market for lease in 2018, but no deals were consummated. Terry Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said a study to determine the space needs of the Beverly Catholic Collaborative has been put on hold while the church meets the increasing needs of parishioners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Collaborative looks forward to resuming that study at the appropriate time to continue its review,” Donilon said in an email.

Lovasco said the Y has already relocated about half the Cabot Street residents to apartments and other YMCA properties, but 24 still remain. He said the Y would prefer to find locations in Beverly so the residents can remain close to services provided by the organization. Many of them have lived there for 15 to 20 years, he said.

“We have some out-of-town options that we really don’t love, and some in-town options that are hard to coordinate,” he said. “Making sure that our tenants have a quality place to live in this interim is incredibly important.”

Another option, Lovasco said, is to allow people to live in the building while construction is done in phases. He said the goal is to start construction in August and to reopen the building by September 2021.

Lovasco said the coronavirus crisis has “raised the bar” on safety concerns surrounding the move. The YMCA of the North Shore is already providing emergency child care for essential workers, has transformed its Cape Ann Y into a shelter for 30 homeless adults, and is helping local schools and food pantries deliver meals to families and individuals, including more than 500 residents of affordable housing operated by the Y.

“Landlords have reached out,” he said. “Even though it’s a difficult time, I think people have opened their hearts. They want to help the Y help others.”

Harborlight Community Partners Executive Director Andrew DeFranza said project leaders are exploring the use of a vacant former nursing home “a few cities away” as a possible relocation site for Cabot Street residents. The organizations would provide transportation support for the residents, he said.

DeFranza said moving the residents has become a “very difficult situation” since the convent plan fell through.

“We thought we had a win-win opportunity,” he said in the press release. “The residents would literally stay in their same neighborhood during the renovations, the Church would receive significant rent for an otherwise vacant space, and perhaps most importantly to all our missions, we would be helping those in our Beverly community who need it most.”

“If we can find a solution where they can all live in the same building as they do now that would be great,” DeFranza added.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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