Councilors Reject Plan to Slow Downtown Church Demolition

A Domino’s Pizza franchise and up to three small shops would replace the former St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church, 110 Main St.

The bill allows cities right of first refusal to buy church and non-profit properties slated for private development. St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church, for example, had been pitched as a hamburger restaurant.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church merged with Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church of Lawrence in 2002 to form the Armenian Church at Hye Pointe.

Plans for a new Armenian church in Bradford will advance as Haverhill city councilors decided last night not to place any restrictions on the sale and proposed demolition of the former St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church on Main Street.

In a 6 to 2 vote, councilors defeated an ordinance which would have granted the Haverhill Historic Commission authority to both delay demolition of properties in the historic district and regulate designs of new buildings. Most councilors argued church parishioners need the money from the sale of the iconic church to complete a new building that has been in the works for 15 years. Councilors also said they will trust a Domino’s Pizza franchise to voluntarily work with officials to construct an attractive strip shopping area. Councilor Joseph J. Bevilaqua summarized the feelings of the majority.

“This is one of the few cases where a developer isn’t asking for anything from the city,” he said. Bevilacqua said the city council failed to act 15 years ago to regulate the property, or even six years ago when a Burger King was first proposed on the site at 110 Main St.

Councilor William J. Macek called the quick plan to halt demolition of the church an 11th hour attempt. “I’m not going to roadblock the church or make it any harder,” he said.

Only Councilors Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien and Thomas J. Sullivan voted in favor of giving the historic commission new powers to regulate Main Street buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Councilor Melinda E. Barrett abstained from voting. A majority of councilors also said they would have voted to allow commissioners to review new building designs, but feared a delay to write a new ordinance could harm the sale. While he supports property owner rights, Sullivan said, “I don’t want a retail box” built on the church site overlooking GAR Park. He suggested developers add a “greenspace” along the Winter Street side of the property, possibly to be used to memorialize victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Apostolic Church merged in 2002 with Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church of Lawrence to form the Armenian Church at Hye Pointe. Rev Vart Gyozalian, pastor, told councilors the church hopes to have its new Bradford building open by next January.

Parishioner Kim Kazanjian Dandurant presented a petition of 134 signatures, urging councilors not to delay the sale of the Main Street church. She explained the merged churches have already spent $1 million on their plans.

Resident Michael Valvo, 262 Mill St., spoke in favor of the ordinance, arguing “historic structures deserve respect by adaptive reuse.” City Solicitor William D. Cox Jr. likewise said the city’s role is to preserve the streetscape. “It is better to have the force of an ordinance behind us.” He pointed to the new Wadleigh House, 170 Main St., as an example of a replacement building that is “better than what was there.”

Haverhill Economic and Planning Director William Pillsbury Jr. told councilors the proposed ordinance is not an attempt to stop the real estate transaction, but rather “provide some time for the project to unfold” and give commissioners design review powers. Contrary to popular opinion, he said, there are no laws preventing demolition of historic buildings.

7 thoughts on “Councilors Reject Plan to Slow Downtown Church Demolition

  1. Absolutely disgraceful! This was a very bad decision by our city council. We will remember at re-election time. Residents are not happy about this.

  2. can’t think of anything that summarizes everything wrong with Haverhill better than the view from the Mayor’s office, where he can look across the street and watch them tear down a culturally significant church building to put in a fast food chain.

  3. I hope all of our esteemed politicians have thought this one through, including the increased traffic associated with a strip mall at that location (which is already difficult to maneuver).

  4. I hope some good comes from this debacle. No, I am not referring to the design of the pending strip mall. We need an extensive review of what’s wrong with city ordinances (or lack of therm) to better balance the need to vigorously protect our city’s history with the need to grow and yes, develop our business sector. If nothing changes, we are doomed to become a soulless, generic collection of urban strip malls filled with dollar stores and nail salons. We can and must do better.

    • Joe, there is a detailed Master Plan on the city website.
      When you see that it is titled “City of Haverhill Master Plan 2005” don’t let that discourage you into thinking the mayor isn’t on top of things…after all, that was only 11 years ago. However, as you go through it and see that it is based on information dating back to 1982 you’ll realize the city was doomed a long time ago when he first held public office.