Developers: Former St. Mark's Church may need to be razed


The former St. Mark's Church on Lyndon Street could soon become home to condominiums or apartments, the two developers under contract to buy the property said Friday. The 1830 structure might even have to be demolished, they said, if it proves too expensive to save.

Warren developers William Camara and Nick Ferrara signed a purchase and sale agreement last month to buy the Russell Warren-designed church from the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island for $150,000. They plan to close on the sale over the next week or so, and said they are anxious to get started on development plans as soon as possible.

Since rumors of the impending sale started circulating around town a week ago, members of the Warren Preservation Society, former St. Mark's parishioners and neighbors have expressed concern that the development could harm the church's historic character and destroy an irreplaceable piece of the town's fabric. One preservation-minded citizen even offered to buy the building from the church, offering the Diocese $150,000 in cash (see below), in an offer to trump the developers' offer. That offer was declined by the Diocese, as it already has a written agreement with Mr. Canario and Mr. Ferrara.

While they said they sympathize with those concerned for the church's fate, the two developers were unapologetic Friday about their plans:

"Where were the neighbors three years ago," when the Diocese closed the church and listed the church for sale for $280,000," Mr. Camara asked.

"The truth is, we drove by, saw the for sale sign, made a phone call and an hour later we were in Newport" signing paperwork with the Realtor. The deal has since been approved by the Diocese's Standing Committee and Diocesan Council.

"We didn't buy this to rock anybody's boat," added Mr. Ferrara. "We didn't buy this to incur bad names for ourselves. We're contractors; I appreciate historic buildings, but you can't preserve all of them. Sometimes they're too far gone."

Both men said they will meet with anyone who wants to talk about the church at 9 a.m. next Saturday, July 27, in front of the church.

"We'd be more than happy to discuss the plans with anyone who wants to ask questions or make suggestions," Mr. Camara said.

The plan

Both men were clear that they signed the sales agreement, they were buying for the value of the land first, and the building's value second. The old structure sits on nearly half an acre of prime downtown land.

At this point, they said they don't know whether they'll be able to work with the existing building, or whether it will be more cost-effective to tear it down. Sitting on the front steps Friday afternoon, Mr. Ferrara leaned over to one of four large pillars holding up the church's portico and dug his finger into a rotted section of wood.

"These are coming down," he said, adding that there are other problems with the building, too: Sagging roof, water infiltration and other structural issues.

Though they're not sure, Mr. Camara said he is leaning toward "a wrecking ball" for the building, saying rehabilitating it could indeed be more costly than just tearing it down.

"My feeling is we bring it all down," he said. "We haven't decided for sure yet, but we do know that (demolition) would probably be more cost effective."

Regardless of whether the building stays or goes, there will be other changes, they said. While the main entrance now fronts Lyndon Street, the plan is to make the main entrance on Broad Street. Parking is not an issue, they said, as code specifies 1.5 parking spaces per residential unit. Surrounding streets can more than handle that requirement, both said.

Any plan to change the building's use to residential would require a special use permit and a review before the Warren Zoning Board, and if the plan is ultimately to demolish it, a hearing would have to be held before the Warren Town Council as it lies within the town's Historic Waterfront District.

The last time a property owner sought town permission to demolish a building in the district, the owners of the Wilbur Romano Funeral Home last year were denied permission to tear down the circa-1862 building they own on Main Street.

Swift opposition

Since rumors of the sale started floating through the neighborhood a week ago, former parishioners, members of Warren's preservation community and others have organized in an attempt to block it. Concerned citizens held a neighborhood meeting Sunday night, and neighbor Helen Hunt tracked down dozens of former St. Mark's parishioners and created a petition which was sent to the Bishop Nick Knisely and other officials at the Diocese. On Tuesday night, the Voluntary Historic District Commission will hold an emergency hearing on the matter.

Things have gone even further. After he caught wind of the potential sale late last week, 30 Cutler Street owner and operator David Wescott last Friday toured the building with Realtor Paula Silva and submitted his own offer for the building — $150,000 cash. The Diocese rejected his offer later that day after officials asked their attorneys whether they could get out of the Camara/Ferreira deal.

"We are also concerned and would prefer to sell the building to someone who is going to preserve it," said Diocese spokeswoman Ruth Meteer. "We did approach the buyers to try to get out of the purchase and sale agreement. We offered them money to walk away and they refused to work with us."

The preservation society and others opposed to the sale aren't against development of the church, preservation society vice president Steven Thompson said Friday. However, the group wants to see respectful development that preserves the character of the historic building.

"We want to make sure whatever occurs with this iconic structure is done without losing what makes St. Mark's an irreplaceable part of our community," he said. "There's a community value to the building, a history component to it," he said. "We're still trying."


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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.