Portsmouth council votes to demolish Elmhurst chapel

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elmhurst-chapel-350x234PORTSMOUTH — Provided the contractor agrees to get the job done before next spring, those chapel walls will be tumbling down.

The Town Council Monday night voted unanimously to demolish everything north of the music room at the former Elmhurst School, closed since 2010. This includes the chapel, which some in town had hoped to preserve for use as a performance space.

The School Committee had also presented a plan to turn the 24 cloisters on the east side of the chapel into much-needed office space for school administration. The committee went out to bid for projected costs to get the job done, but wasn’t expected to have any figures ready until mid-December, according to Council President James Seveney.

Several council members said they couldn’t wait any longer to get going on the demolition project so as not to disrupt the business of the town-owned Glen Manor House immediately to the south. The historic home is rented out for weddings and other events.

After the meeting, Mr. Seveney acknowledged that the council vote pretty much derails the committee’s proposal as presented by its chairman, David Croston.

“If the question is, ‘Did we just hip-check him under the bus?’ Then the answer’s yes,” said Mr. Seveney.

Council Vice President John Blaess said he found no compelling reason to support the School Committee’s plan for the Elmhurst property.

“It completely makes no sense to me,” he said, adding that he likes how centrally located the town buildings and services are now.

Mr. Blaess suggested that the school department could “blow out the back” of the administration building across the street from Town Hall to expand its office space — a far cheaper alternative, he said, than transforming the Elmhurst cloisters.

Council members Elizabeth Pedro and David Gleason both said it would be cost-prohibitive to convert the chapel into a different use. “The numbers range from $100 to $250 per square foot,” said Mr. Gleason, adding that even using the lower estimate, “it’s at the magnitude of $3.5 to $4 million.”

Other council members agreed that the council could not wait any longer on the demolition project. “It’s been three years now,” said council member Keith Hamilton. “The Manor House can’t be interrupted again next year, to this extent.”

One of three options

The demolition plan selected by the council was the most aggressive of three options presented by the engineering firm the town had hired, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB). The other two options did not call for the chapel’s removal, and required more demolition in 2014 than did the plan selected by the council.

The plan — known as “option B” — is contingent on contractor JR Vinagro Corporation’s ability to get the building down and the property cleared in time for the Manor House’s first spring rental, scheduled for May 3, 2014.

“We’ve got a hard deadline this winter into the early spring to get whatever we’ve got to do done for the Manor House,” said Mr. Seveney.

The Glen Manor House has already had to cancel two popular December holiday events and suspend rentals from Nov. 10 through April 2014 due to the work going on next door, according to Katie Wilkinson, its resident manager. (Vinagro is currently removing asbestos from the Elmhurst building in preparation for the demolition job.)

Mr. Seveney said he was concerned about the tight window the contractor is under and the fact that the work must be done during “the crappy months.”  He said the council must hear back from Vinagro before the next regular council meeting Dec. 9.

If the contractor decides it can’t get the job done in time, he said, “We button up the north side of the chapel and save that work to a later date.”

Open space grant sought

In a related matter Monday night, the council voted unanimously to grant Town Administrator John Klimm’s request to seek a state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) grant of up to $100,000 for passive recreation.

Mr. Klimm said the money could be used toward the initial stages of developing a public waterfront park at the Elmhurst site after the buildings are cleared. Back in March, VHB showed the council several different plans for the park, which featured a mix of open space, walking trails, terraces, gardens, a pavilion, play area, parking and more.

“This is a recreation and open space grant, so they’d rather we knock the building down,” said Mr. Klimm of the Elmhurst site.

The plan must be submitted to DEM by Dec. 6, Mr. Klimm said, adding he hopes to hear from Vinagro regarding the chapel demolition timeline before then.

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