The redevelopment of the former Blessed Sacrament Church campus in Boston’s Jamaica Plain is nothing short of a miracle. The developers purchased the 3.1-acre site from the Archdiocese of Boston in December 2005 and, since then, have faced insurmountable challenges—not least of which was the collapse of the tax-credit market that threatened to kill their large-scale efforts to turn the parcel into a mix of affordable rental and for-sale housing with retail and commercial space. But Boston-based New Atlantic Development and Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. (JPNDC) were determined to not let the financial crisis destroy their vision to preserve affordable housing in a gentrifying historic Boston neighborhood.
Thanks to the development team’s relentless efforts—and undoubtedly a prayer or two—the first new project on the campus opened to much fanfare in early December 2009. The 16-unit Creighton Commons, which combines new construction with the renovation of the 115-year-old rectory, offers affordable, two-bedroom condos priced at roughly $177,000 and targets those earning 80 percent or less of the area median income.
Getting the first project off the ground proved to be just as challenging as the acquisition of the site back in 2005. “When the archdiocese announced they were going to close 80 parishes, we heard this was going to be one of the most sought-after sites,” says Richard Thal, executive director of JPNDC. “People had the idea of creating a whole new community on this campus, to have a priority for affordable housing, community space, and social and educational programs. We negotiated with the archdiocese, but it never would have happened without the support of the community.”
Desperate to provide housing for families struggling to stay in the neighborhood, roughly 1,400 community members signed a petition asking the archdiocese to sell the land to the community development corporation. “The archdiocese wasn’t into affordable housing; they really were looking for the best price, so we were competing with the market,” says William Madsen Hardy, vice president of New Atlantic Development.
Ultimately, the two development firms crafted a plan that would generate enough cash to offer the competitive price of $6.025 million for the land. That plan includes reusing five of the buildings on site—the convent, rectory, and church are slated for housing, while the two former school buildings will be rented as school and office space—and building two new structures, plus a large, underground parking garage. When completed, the development, called Church Square, is expected to deliver a striking mix of multifamily housing—36 rental units, 53 for-sale condos, and 28 formerly homeless housing units—as well as approximately 31,600 square feet of education, community, and office space.
First Things First
The original plans called for building the rental units first with the help of low-income housing tax credits. But before the developers could close on the rental components, the economy took a turn for the worse, and the tax-credit market exploded, leaving the property’s future in limbo. “When we bought the property, we borrowed $8 million so we could pay for the soft costs of developing the campus,” Hardy says. “With an $8 million loan to service; that’s $40,000 a month. So when development is stalled, you can imagine how painful that is to your budget—especially when you are doing affordable housing where your fees and profits are already so narrow.”