PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Developer David Carver has been into adaptive reuse since before the term was trendy.
Since the 1980s he’s repurposed everything from old office buildings to schools and hospitals. And lately, he’s taken to turning churches into housing. The new passion stems from the creative design challenge they pose, because the projects align with his development philosophy and because the buildings were begging to be used — the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has sold dozens of properties in Western Massachusetts since 2008.
Plus, churches historically reside within densely populated neighborhoods near downtown centers, where Carver likes to do most of his work.
“I think we should be fixing up what we have rather than building new,” Carver said, adding everything was “more solidly built” in the early to mid-1900s. “Politically, it’s in line with my thinking about land use in our communities.”
City officials say his latest project, turning the old St. Mary the Morning Star Church into apartments, will transform the Tyler Street neighborhood. The project, which includes 29 new dwellings, is slated to break ground this summer.
As he designs the Morningstar project, Carver begins to market another repurposed church around the corner.
In the case of Powerhouse Lofts, the old Holy Family Church on Seymour Street he’s turning into 10 apartment units, Carver is outfitting the building for a third generation of useful life. It was originally built at the turn of the 20th century as a powerhouse for the city’s trolley system, said principals at Bradley Architects. Then the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield remade it, high interior arches and all, into a place of worship.
Now, it will be a place where city residents of moderate means can lay their heads.
The view from the second floor stairs on a recent afternoon was striking. Gold-hued cherubs peered around barrel vaults and mosaic-lined arcs sloped toward the ceiling.
“All of this was 15 feet above your head, but now it’s right at your elbow,” said Robert Harrison, a principal at Bradley Architects, grinning.
The firm is handling design work for both the Powerhouse and Morningstar projects.
In one single-bedroom unit on the second floor of soon-to-be Powerhouse Lofts, a large arched window lined with stained glass offers a view of the corner of Seymour and Wahconah streets, and Michelangelo-esque ceiling art answers any need for decoration. On the first floor, remnants of confessionals form small nooks along the common hallway.
Carver said it can be costly bringing old buildings up to code. He said modern sprinkler systems must be included, as well as new electrical systems and environmental remediation to remove lead paint and asbestos.
“You want to build something that’s really cool, but you don’t want to go bankrupt,” he said. “It’s not easy. That’s why I have to space them out. I think long term, and these are very, very long term investments.”
Harrison said designers began the project by measuring the building, roughing out sketches and allowing Carver to react to them.
“It’s iterative,” he said. “It’s going back and forth until we feel like, ‘this is it.'”
Then, about a year ago, they moved into schematic design and formal architectural drawings.
Harrison said these types of projects take a great deal of resources and imagination.
“It’s a unique opportunity, and it takes a unique developer to be able to see it,” he said.
Morningstar will be the fourth Berkshire church to become housing at Carver’s hand. His firm also redeveloped St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Williamstown into the eight-unit Church Corners Apartments — “that was my first foray into small neighborhood churches” — and later converted the old Holy Family property in North Adams.
Carver said he focuses his redevelopment efforts in the downtown areas as a means to contribute to the health of the Berkshires’ economic centers, which have struggled since the ’80s to regain their manufacturing era heyday.
“I don’t like sprawl, and I’m more interested in developing downtown,” he said.
He said the popularization of the family vehicle and the resulting development trends “clobbered” downtowns everywhere, leading population centers to spread out and to the creation of shopping malls, which compounded the damage to downtown retail.
Then, he said, the internet happened.
A thriving downtown should have a good mix of housing, retail, restaurants and cultural outlets, he said, and so Pittsfield is well on its way.
“If you go back to 1995 I think it’s extraordinary what’s been accomplished in the downtown,” Carver said of Pittsfield, referencing downtown anchors from the Colonial Theatre, Beacon Cinema, an assortment of new retailers and Onota 74 all the way to Berkshire Medical Center.
“I think it’s pretty darn good,” he said. “A lot of people worked really hard at it.”
Information from: The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle, http://www.berkshireeagle.com