Should it stay or should it go?

Voters at FTM will decide if town should allow option to demolish monastery

By Josh Bickford
Posted 5/18/22

Debra Nyser has lived near the Carmelite Monastery for more than 30 years. 

She loves the neighborhood, and recently has grown concerned about some of the plans being discussed for the …

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Should it stay or should it go?

Voters at FTM will decide if town should allow option to demolish monastery

Posted

Debra Nyser has lived near the Carmelite Monastery for more than 30 years. 

She loves the neighborhood, and recently has grown concerned about some of the plans being discussed for the sprawling seven-acre parcel that used to be home to the Carmelite nuns.

Earlier this month, members of the Barrington Town Council voted 5-0 to add a resolution to the financial town meeting agenda asking for permission to demolish the monastery building as an option for future renovation or construction.  

That resolution is a change from the vote at last year’s financial town meeting, where taxpayers approved the purchase of the property with the stipulation that the monastery building be preserved. 

“I feel like the town council wants to take a second bite from the apple,” Nyser said during a recent interview. “I think they had a plan in the works from the beginning. I think they hand-picked the committee. I think it was a done-deal.”

Nyser is referring to the 25 Watson Ave. Ad Hoc Committee, a group of more than a dozen residents who have been tasked with providing a recommendation to the town council about what to do with the monastery property. 

The committee has been meeting for months and working with multiple consultants. Recently, the committee narrowed down the future design options to three finalists — one calls for the renovation of the existing monastery and construction of additional cottage court units; the second calls for the renovation of the existing building and the construction of an addition; and the third calls for the removal of the monastery and construction of a new building.

Nyser said some of those options do not represent the desires of the community. She said some of the people on the 25 Watson Ave. Ad Hoc Committee represent special interests, such as the affordable housing industry. Nyser said input from the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood has been marginalized and, at times, ignored. 

“This consulting firm has become a lobbying firm,” Nyser said, adding that residents had to fight to have three neighbors added to the ad hoc committee. 

Nyser said many other residents who live near the monastery property are pushing back against the possibility of razing the building. Some residents turned out to the Barrington Town Council meeting earlier this month to oppose adding the resolution to the May 25 FTM agenda.

Mary Grenier, a member of the ad hoc committee, told the town council that the majority of comments shared with the committee supported preserving the monastery building. She said there was a dot poll conducted during a recent ad hoc committee meeting and results showed to be overwhelmingly in support of preserving the monastery. Grenier said the community voted at the 2021 financial town meeting to preserve the monastery.

The community has spoken time and again to preserve the building, Grenier said. 

Ian Burgess lives near the monastery property. He attended the recent council meeting and said maintaining the monastery building has been the most popular option during the ad hoc committee’s work. He said including a resolution on the May 25 FTM agenda was not in line with what the community has said. 

Blaise Rein spoke during the council meeting also. The Waterway resident said the decision to seek permission to demolish the monastery appears to be based on an interest in getting a greater financial return for the project. Rein asked why the consultants continue to promote designs that do not have the support of the community. Rein said that removing the existing building would lead to the removal of other natural features of the property, including the loss of trees and bushes. 

A handful of people have also submitted letters to the editor to the Barrington Times.

“There are members of the town council who would be thrilled to level the monastery and build a massive apartment complex or jam as many tiny houses on the parcel of land as can possibly fit. Units = money,” wrote Vanessa Sheehan in a letter to the editor. “I am saddened and disappointed by the lack of consideration being given to the preservation and conservation of the land.”

“At last year's FTM, a resolution to preserve the monastery was passed, and our local community believes that the voters' decision should be upheld,” wrote Ed Hawrot in a letter to the editor. “We have made this very clear at numerous public meetings including the most recent meeting of the town council. Short of maintaining the undeveloped portion of the plot as open green space, which for many is the ideal repurposing, any redevelopment plans should be focused on making use of the existing structure. This is the most ‘green’ option available to the town.”

“This building, with the appropriate upgrades, would be a perfect location for the additional senior housing that the town needs,” wrote Elizabeth Grieser. “Surrounded by green space and water views, it is an ideal place for seniors looking for a serene and tranquil place to down-size their housing.”

Asbestos concerns

Many of the people who have commented or written in support of preserving the building have mentioned their concerns about the asbestos in the monastery structure. 

Dave Butera, a member of the ad hoc committee and an abutter to the property, said he and his son have asthma and he is very worried about razing a building that has asbestos. He asked council members: If this were in your back yard, would you want to demolish it?

Grenier asked a similar questions during the council meeting.

“We ask you all whether you would all feel comfortable living next to asbestos contained demolition project? We live 18 feet from the property. 

I don’t believe there’s any abatement that can prevent the asbestos from getting into the environment, getting into the air,” she said.

Grenier asked council members to consider when they would want to expose their families to asbestos, adding that she feels her family would need to relocate during any building demolition. 

During a recent interview, Nyser said razing the monastery will create an environmental disaster.

“That building is filled with asbestos,” she said. “It’s going to get into the soil. It’s going to get into the bay.”

Councilors respond

Barrington Town Council President Michael Carroll said that while there is a lot interest in the upcoming resolution vote, he believes the most important objectives regarding the monastery property have already been achieved.

During a recent interview, Carroll said the town has control of the property and there is consensus among council members for using the property to create senior housing. Carroll also said he wants to make sure that there’s an affordable component to the housing when it is constructed. 

The council president said he is also focused on ensuring that the town does not lose too much money when it sells the property to a developer in the future. Carroll added that he likes the idea of preserving the monastery building, but has been told by consultants that it is going to be difficult to “carve into that structure,” referencing the potential challenges of renovating the building. 

Carroll said consultants are recommending that the town remain open to the option of demolishing the structure, which was a driving force behind the decision to add the resolution to the upcoming financial town meeting. 

“I think it’s a special place,” Carroll said of the monastery. “People have been baptized there, so they have that connection. I remember my mom always going there to get Mass cards...”

Carroll said he believes there may be parts of the building that could be preserved, and referenced a section of wall inside the monastery that had been beautifully carved. 

The council president also addressed the asbestos in the building. He said that targeted remediation may, in fact, be more difficult a process. He said that whether the building is torn down or renovated, the town will ensure that safety and environmental requirements necessary will be strictly followed. 

During the recent council meeting, members of the council took time to share their reasons for supporting the resolution. 

Carl Kustell said he believed the public should have the opportunity to decide on whether to leave open the option to raze the building. Annelise Conway, who sits as liaison to the ad hoc committee, said the resolution, if passed, provides the consultants with an opportunity to look at different possibilities for the property. Conway, who is hoping for a large turnout to the May 25 FTM, said the town is limiting itself without exploring all the options. 

Rob Humm said he was inclined to agree with the people who spoke out during the recent council meeting, but later added that he supported placing the question in front of voters at the FTM. He said the council’s job is to do what it can to get the most value for the property. Humm encouraged people to attend the FTM and share their comments. 

Jacob Brier said the asbestos in the building is a concern whether officials decide to renovate the building or raze it. He said the town needs to make sure the right developer is in place to do the work, and officials can better ensure that by trying to make the project as attractive as possible to developers. Brier said putting too many restrictions on the project could be problematic. Brier added that he does not think the building should be demolished, but also wants to get to the right final outcome. 

Carroll said this resolution was just one step along the way. 

“We’re not done by a long-shot,” he said. 

Carroll later made the motion to place the resolution on the May 25 FTM agenda. Kustell seconded the motion, which carried 5-0.

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