Downtown Burlington Catholic church headed for the real estate market
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Burlington hosted its last Mass on Saturday as the parish plans to sell its prominent downtown property.
The property has received substantial interest from developers and will likely be listed for sale in January, Steve Donahue, principal of Donahue & Associates real estate firm, said.
The parish has contracted the firm to sell the property, which is located on Pine Street between Cherry and Pearl streets, across from the ongoing CityPlace development and near the Church Street Marketplace.
Declining attendance and financial difficulty has lead the Immaculate Conception parish to merge with St. Joseph’s parish in the Old North End. Immaculate Conception had been the Burlington Diocese’s cathedral for more than 100 years, until 2001 when it became a co-cathedral with St. Joseph’s. It was downgraded to a parish earlier this year.
Donahue said his firm is currently examining zoning and density regulations and is planning on listing the property in early January. He said the property will likely become a high-density multi-use development.
“It’s going to be a very highly desired, sought-after large-scale development that is going to have interest from locals and folks outside the area, and many of those have already surfaced and reached out,” Donahue said. “There’s a long list of folks waiting to get more details on the offering.”
The city of Burlington has assessed the total property value at just under $4.5 million. It is too early to estimate what the asking price might be, Donahue said.
Immaculate Conception was designated as a cathedral in 1867. But the old cathedral was destroyed by arson in March 1972 and was replaced by the modern-style building.
Donahue said that whoever buys the property will likely pursue a project similar to the CityPlace project.
“The entire Cherry Street area is getting a tremendous facelift, an infusion of a lot of development,” he said. “I think anyone who is looking at the Immaculate parish property is looking at the quality of development that is happening across the street and will probably mimic that with something similar.”
The Rev. Lance Harlow, who was the pastor of Immaculate Conception and now is at St. Joseph’s, said the parish was unable to recover many of the parishioners who left during the five-year period it took to rebuild the church in the 1970s.
Harlow said church attendance at Immaculate Conception also decreased over time, in partbecause of the city’s urban renewal efforts, which replaced housing with commercial buildings downtown.
“Without the people, there’s no money, and without the money, there’s no parish,” Harlow said.
Harlow said an influx of immigrants from African countries and Vietnam into the Old North End has help bolster St. Joseph’s, and the money acquired from the sale will help ensure that St. Joseph’s remains financially stable.
“We realized we have a church a block away, we need to close Immaculate Conception and focus on building it up,” he said. “St. Joseph is being built up because we have these immigrant communities coming in.”
Immaculate Conception’s last Mass was attended by around 240 people, and the building was officially declassified as a church Saturday.
Immaculate Conception’s altar is being moved to St. Joseph’s, Harlow said, and some of the other objects inside the church are being moved to local Catholic schools.
CityPlace developer Don Sinex, who has butted headswith city officials as his project has hit delays, said via email that he had inquired to the parish about the property in the past.
“I have spoken to the Church about this property a few times in the past (a few years ago) but I have not heard much about it for the past year,” Sinex said. “I am unsure whether I will have any interest, however until I see the offering material, which I have not seen as yet.”
Donahue said that he did not think the opposition to the CityPlace project would discourage developers from pursuing the Immaculate Conception property, since CityPlace was able to successfully acquire the permits it needs to move forward.
State architectural historian Devin Colman said that the current building and landscape have historical value, though it appears likely, due to the location and interest in the property, that it will be substantially redeveloped.
Colman said the building and landscape were designed in a very intentional way. The trees line up with angles of the building and the colors of the building’s brick mimic the brown tree trunks and other foliage in the landscape.
“It’s very unusual in a rural state like Vermont to have a designed landscape as part of a project like this,” Colman said.
The landscape is also significant because it is the work of Daniel Kiley, who, Colman said, is the leading landscape architect of the 20th century and was based in Charlotte.
Colman said if the building and landscape were replaced, it would be a significant loss for Vermont’s modernist architectural heritage.
“We don’t have a lot of modernist buildings, and each time we lose one, it’s a shrinking pool that we are looking at,” he said. “It’s important to remind people the 20th century happened in Vermont, and these are the buildings that reflect what people wanted at that time.”
While the architecture of the era has fallen out of favor, Colman said, every era of architecture goes through a similar process of being loved when built, disliked 30 to 40 years later and then appreciated more in following decades.
Colman, who lives in Burlington, said he felt like the property is often overlooked. He said losing the green space downtown would be a loss.
“I would encourage folks to stop and really look at it and think about what it would be like to have a big block of buildings there, losing that green space,” he said. “I think every city needs places to pause and take a step out of the urban hustle and bustle.”
Donahue said developing the block lines up with the city’s vision for downtown.
“With the encouragement of growing the city as far as folks living in the downtown and working in the downtown and growing the tax base, I think it’s yet another opportunity for the city to grow in ways that are consistent with the mayor’s vision and others folks’ visions,” he said.