Miracle at St. Mark's? Developers may yield
Warren businessman and 30 Cutler Street owner Dave Wescott agreed Tuesday on a plan which will allow him to purchase the landmark 1830 church on Lyndon Street from the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.
Mr. Wescott said the two developers who had previously planned to purchase the building from the Diocese, Bill Camara and Nick Ferrara, agreed to sign over their contract to him in exchange for undisclosed consideration.
The two had planned to buy the building for $150,000 and either tear it down or transform it into condos or apartments. That initial sale, which was disclosed just over a week ago, caused a furor in town.
But in an effort to save the 1830 Russell Warren-designed church, Mr. Wescott said the parties all met Tuesday, July 23, and came to an agreement that both seller and buyer are happy with.
"It's just a handshake at this point, there are still papers to be signed," Mr. Wescott said Tuesday afternoon. "But there's an agreement in place. My entire goal here was just to save the building, and take a deep breath, then decide what to do. Maybe I'll end up living with it, maybe I won't. I don't have any goal other than keep the building standing."
The meeting came about after a tumultuous week. The potential sale to Mr. Camara and Mr. Ferrara caught many residents off guard, including former St. Mark's parishioners and members of the Warren Preservation Society. However, Tuesday's meeting was not organized through the preservation society, but rather by Warren resident Mike D'Albergaria, who heard about the potential teardown a few days ago and saw that his childhood friend, Nick Ferrara, was involved.
"I immediately went over to Nick's House and I told him, 'Nick, you can't tear down that building!'"
"They told me their plan, and I asked them if they were interested in selling."
Calls were placed to Lyndon Street resident and Realtor Paula Silva and Mr. Wescott. All were receptive, and they hammered out a deal.
When news of the potential sale had first broken about 10 days ago, Mr. Wescott offered the Diocese $150,000 to walk away from the Camara/Ferrara deal. The Diocese declined, though, as officials already had an agreement with the two would-be buyers.
By Tuesday, though, the two would-be developers had started hearing about the opposition to their plans (see below) and said they'd be willing to sit down and talk to Mr. Wescott. In the end, after an hour-plus meeting, they agreed to transfer the contract to him.
"We all said, 'We can do this,'" Mr. D'Albergaria said. "This was Dave Wescott basically working with the neighborhood, the friends of St. Mark's Church, and (Camara and Ferrera). There's a gentleman's agreement in place. These guys really stepped up to the plate and tried to do the right thing to make this happen."
Prior to Tuesday's meeting, there were fears that the imposing church building could soon become home to condominiums or apartments. The 1830 structure might even have to be demolished, Mr. Camara and Mr. Ferrara said last Friday, if it proved too expensive to save.
While they said they sympathized with those concerned for the church's fate, the two developers were unapologetic last 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, putting a down payment on it. Anybody could have bought it. We regret the fact that it's a nice stately building."
"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 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, they said.
Last Friday, they said they don't know whether they would be able to work with the existing building, or whether it would have been more cost-effective to tear it down. Mr. Camara said he was 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."
One of the main problems, they said, was that the condos or apartments would have been built over two floors, and that would necessitate putting a second floor in the structure. He said building codes would not allow the current 13-foot windows along the church's sides to stay in place, and taking them out and re-building could be difficult.
While the main entrance now fronts Lyndon Street, the plan was also to make the main entrance on Broad Street, with no egress on Lyndon.
As rumors of the sale started floating through the neighborhood a week ago, former parishioners, members of Warren's preservation community and others organized in an attempt to block it. Concerned citizens held a neighborhood meeting last 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.
Diocesan officials shared their concerns prior to the deal with Mr. Wescott.
"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."
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."