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City Council, July 18

Construction of new Gaillard Center to begin shortly
Another chance for congregation to buy church on Wentworth Street
Marc Knapp

The Gaillard Center crossed its last hurdle last night on its path to creation. Council last night approved a construction contract with the Skansa Trident Construction (Joint Venture) for $111.6 million. This is a fixed price contract and the contractor bears the burden of any cost overrun.

Despite some criticism of the project over recent months by the local press, some neighborhood associations and the Preservation Society, nobody spoke in opposition to the contract during Citizens Participation. And the easy passage of the item through both the Ways and Means Committee, and the Council suggested that approval was more a formality than a hurdle.

The Mayor spoke at length about the project and its virtues. But with the public and BAR meetings over the last year or so, there was little to add about the project. However, more was revealed about the financing and the source of public funding.

The total cost of the Gaillard project is projected at $142 million. The City is financing $71 million of this and private donors, the remaining $71 million. As already reported, the City plans to draw on Tax Increment Financing funds, Accommodation and Hospitality taxes, and General Obligation Bonds. To tap private donors, the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation was formed, presumably with City encouragement. In a letter to Council, and in a presentation last night, representatives said that the Foundation had secured finance to ensure that $71 million would be available for funding. The Foundation was looking to pledges and grants though it was unlikely that all of the $71 million would be raised before the completion of the project. For this reason it had secured the “irrevocable commitment” of a loan to cover any shortfall. This loan would be repaid from the funds derived from long term pledges and presumably, the further soliciting of funds after completion of the project.

Mayor Riley indicated that with the approval of the contract, work on the project would start very shortly. The project should be completed by December 2014 and the opening was planned for January 2015.

Another chance for congregation to buy church
The issue over the sale and change of the use of a church at 43 Wentworth Street was defused before it came before Council. The congregation presently using the church is to be given another opportunity to buy the property and maintain the present use.

The Board of Zoning Appeals, a month or so ago, approved the change of the use. Subsequently, the church and its adjoining hall were purchased by Ms. Nancy Snowden. She planned an office use for the hall and a residential use for the church. And her plans were endorsed by the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association.

The church properties had been on the market for some 5 years or so. Reportedly, they were first listed at around $8 million. A congregation of another church has been using the church building and was interested in buying the property. However, the asking price at that time was over $3 million, the Mayor noted last night, a price the congregation could not afford. However, the sale price to Ms. Snowden was $1.6 million.

The First Redeemer congregation protested. The $1.6 million price was one it possibly could afford, particularly if it joined with another congregation. And it will get the opportunity to see whether it can afford it . Ms. Snowden said she would waive her rights and allow the First Redeemer congregation 60 days to reach an agreement with the seller. If no agreement were reached, she would move ahead with the purchase. And the City agreed not to stand in her way.

There was opposition to the change in use from a number of citizens. And from his comments last night, the Mayor was also not happy about the change in use and offered assistance in the negotiations (but not cash)

We’d agree with the Mayor that it is important to preserve our historic buildings, and for churches, to continue their present use. But it is a fact that church attendance generally is declining in the nation. And on the Peninsula, attendance is not helped in that many properties are second homes occupied for only part of the year.

The church at 43 Wentworth Street is not the first to come onto the market. About 5 years ago, the Baptist Church in Wraggborough was for sale and the prospective owner sought, with City encouragement, to turn it into a theater. The Board of Zoning Appeals did not approve the change of use and no change, or sale took place. It was a victory for the neighborhood. But the issue of maintenance of the church still remains.

And maintenance is an issue for most if not all of the City’s churches. The structures are large and the cost of repairs high, generally beyond the fiscal resources of their congregations. And generally it is only be the congregation that funds such repairs. If the use cannot be changed, how can a church be sold? And if the use cannot be changed, how will the City ensure that the buildings don’t become derelict? Almost certainly, these questions will be asked again.

Contract approved with higher minority participation
The contract to replace the fire station at 1451 King Street was on the agenda again last night. Discussion took up an hour or so at the last meeting as the degree of minority participation was questioned. The City planned to award the contract to M.B.Kahn Construction whose bid at $5.712 million was the lowest. But the MWBE participation was only 5.9%. Some Council members, particularly Council member Gregorie thought it should be more. And at the Mayor’s instigation, Council voted to defer the issue.

The MWBE participation in the contract is now 16.1%. We and some Council members don’t know what happened in the interim. But at the higher level, there was no issue over its award and it got unanimous agreement.

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