PORTSMOUTH — A local real estate agent who wants to turn the former Elmhurst School chapel into a music and film studio is considering legal action against the Town Council, which Monday night re-affirmed its intention to tear the building down.
The council voted unanimously to approve a $115,210 change order in the demolition work on the school in order to include the chapel.
“What’s the rush to get the chapel down? That’s what I’m trying to learn,” said John Vitkevich Tuesday, adding that he’s considering “an emergency action to file a restraining order against the town.”
The Town Council Nov. 25 voted unanimously to demolish everything north of the music room at the former school, closed since 2010. The includes the chapel, which some in town had hoped to preserve for use as a performance space.
The demolition plan was contingent on contractor J.R. Vinagro Corporation’s ability to get the building down and the property cleared in time for the Glen Manor House’s first spring rental, scheduled for May 3, 2014. Monday night, Finance Director David Faucher told the council that Vinagro has indicated that it can indeed get the demolition job, including the chapel, completed by April 1. (The town plans on storing the chapel’s 10 stained-glass windows in hopes of finding a buyer for them.)
That left two local residents scratching their heads, since long before the Nov. 25 vote the council had asked for requests for expressions of interest (RFEIs) on on the rehabilitation, operation and management of the chapel.
“I found it odd that you voted to knock the chapel down when that was placed out for various requests. I would really like to know what’s going on,” said Allen Shers, a longtime Realtor who proposed transforming the chapel into a community civic center. “I’ve said to you people not to rush (in knocking down the chapel) because some new ideas could come about. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Mr. Vitkevich pointed out that the RFEI wasn’t even due until Nov. 29, four days after the vote to demolish the chapel. “That took me by surprise,” he told the council.
In his RFEI, Mr. Vitkevich, a former member of the Elmhurst Planning Committee, requested to negotiate a long-term lease for the chapel.
“Due to the Elmhurst chapel’s unique design and high roof line it can be re-purposed as a film/music production studio,” Mr. Vitkevich stated in a letter to Mr. Faucher. “The acoustics cannot be duplicated in Portsmouth and the high roof line allows for the cameras, lights and booms to be out of the camera frame.”
Mr. Vitkevich, who worked with a film crew at Glen Farm for two days in 2006, said Portsmouth is an attractive place for movie-makers. “Examples are Glen Farm, Glen Park and even Glen Manor in the winter months or any of our 53 miles of the Portsmouth coastline,” he said, adding that this re-use of the chapel would not adversely impact the operations of the Glen Manor House next door.
Mr. Shers’ RFEI is predicated on the town’s school administration building relocating to the perimeter areas of the chapel, an idea that had been floated by School Committee Chairman David Croston. Council members, however, say the School Department never came up with any hard estimates on the cost to transform the cloisters into office space.
Mr. Shers said the chapel could be used as a “community civic center” for seminars, meetings, educational courses, book readings, historical events and other programs. He submitted a separate proposal for the former school’s music and art rooms, which he said could be used for business development and job creation. For both proposals, Mr. Shers asked for a 10-year lease with options for more.
Council members, however, said they believed it would be too expensive to rehabilitate the building.
“I can’t envision something that’s going to turn a profit with the amount of work that building needs,” said council member David Gleason. “It’s time for it to come down.”
Added council member Molly Magee, “Do I see a high probability of a financial return that will cover the cost of what we have to do with that building? I don’t.”
Both Mr. Vitkevich and Mr. Shers, however, said their plans won’t cost taxpayers anything. “If there are any kinds of shortfalls, I would pay for it,” said Mr. Shers.
Mr. Vitkevich added that the town never asked residents for a business plan. “You asked for an expression of interest,” he said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Vitkevich said he is waiting for additional information before deciding on legal action against the town. He also pointed out that, like the chapel, the Glen Manor House was in danger of being torn down in 1972, before a grassroots campaign saved it.
“I feel very passionately about saving the (chapel),” he said.