Route 66 news update:  more on the pending demise of St. Mary Carmelite Church in Joliet

If you’ve been reading this blog faithfully, by now you know that the historic former St. Mary Carmelite Catholic Church in downtown Joliet, IL is up for auction later this month – at a bottom-of-the-barrel price that the Diocese of Joliet would never have sold it for a few years ago … which means that the 1882 Gothic Revival church building is once again imperiled and in danger of being demolished.  We posted that about a week ago.

The church was already headed for demolition a few years ago when developer Scott Henry of Northbrook, IL-based Celadon Holdings, LLC acquired the property from the diocese, with the intent of turning the building and the 1960s-built priory next door into senior housing for people 55 and older.  Almost everyone was thrilled with that prospect.

The former St. Mary Carmelite Catholic Church could be torn down by year end.   Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

The former St. Mary Carmelite Catholic Church could be torn down by year end, unless someone saves the historic structure by Oct. 23.   Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

Almost.  After much effort, the project ran into a few critical snags – the biggest one being attorney and former Will County Republican head Richard Kavanagh.  Kavanagh, whose office is next door to the church priory on Ottawa Street, kept complaining that the property was better suited to commercial development – despite the fact that the property had been sitting empty for at least two decades and no one else had sought to develop it.  In fact, the diocese had tried for years to find a buyer and failed, and holding on to the property was costing money – even tearing it down would cost money, which was why the diocese was willing to sell so cheaply to Celadon and partners, diocese spokesman Edward Flavin told the Joliet Herald-News.

Last week, I spoke over the phone to Henry, who admits to being brokenhearted about the way things turned out.  Henry and his not-for-profit partners, who had already spent a considerable amount of money trying to get the project going, last month were forced to put the property up for auction.  “This was not an easy decision,” and too many obstacles were put in the project’s path, he said.  The $278,000 minimum bid is just enough to cover Celadon’s project costs to date.  “We’re not looking to profit hugely from this.  We’re willing to let go of the property and step aside if someone really wants to build something to benefit the city.”

The winning bidder, however, might not have much competition – and theoretically, someone could get the entire property for a song, i.e., just the opening bid.  The buyer then could simply level the buildings and build from scratch, removing forever a landmark-worthy building from Joliet’s skyline.  There is also a possibility that no one will bid, Henry conceded.  In that case, “we’ll still have the project, and we’ll talk to the city about this and alternative uses” for the property.  He noted that there was a rumor the city wanted to build a hotel and convention center downtown, for example.

Simply building a hotel and convention center doesn’t guarantee, however, that anyone would actually use it.  The problem for downtown Joliet is in attracting anyone other than casino customers.  For a convention center to work in attracting more business downtown, there have to already be other amenities there to make using the convention center attractive – amenities that nearby Chicago has in abundance and that Joliet doesn’t.  Beyond the two colleges, the casino and the Joliet Area Historical Museum, the only things that downtown Joliet has to attract tourists are its historical buildings … and if you tear one of them down, that’s one less thing for tourists to see.  In a way, then, tearing down St. Mary Carmelite is a lot like the city shooting itself in the groin.  Or perhaps a few inches lower.

Part of the problem was timing, in terms of the overall economy.  Henry conceded that the original estimated cost per unit was high but added that it had been significantly revised downward since then.  “We originally thought the [total] cost would be around $20 million,” Henry said, “before we’d done any due diligence.”  He also pointed out that it’s frequently the case in such historic restorations to initially overestimate the cost, then revise it lower as a detailed building analysis is made and plans are revised accordingly.  That was certainly true of St. Mary Carmelite.  Moreover, “other historic preservation projects done in other states have had higher costs,” which means the estimate for St. Mary Carmelite’s adaptive reuse wasn’t necessarily out of line with similar preservation projects.

Interior nave of St. Mary Carmelite Church on Route 66 in Joliet, IL; the stained glass skylight is above the sanctuary.  Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman; all rights reserved.

Interior nave of St. Mary Carmelite Church on Route 66 in Joliet, IL; the stained glass skylight is above the sanctuary. Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman; all rights reserved.

That didn’t mean anything to Kavanagh, who used a revolving door of varying complaints plus a lawsuit against the city to try to stop the project – and, some say, may have used his political pull behind the scenes to derail the project and get the Illinois Housing Development Authority to deny the project the critical tax break that would get Henry the rest of the financing needed.  When the project was submitted to the city council, the planning commission and the state agency, the cost estimate had already dropped considerably.  However, by the time the IHDA had received the lowered estimate, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had also begun leaning on state housing agencies to lower their costs during the Great Recession.  Also, the permit granted to the project by the city expired while Kavanagh was busy suing the city and quite likely wouldn’t be renewed while the lawsuit is ongoing.

In the end, “we just couldn’t get the cost low enough to make the agency happy,” Henry said.  Loss of the 9 percent tax credit meant seeking funding from other sources, and that was more difficult because that funding wouldn’t come as cheaply.  Added to the denial of the tax credit, expiration of the city permit and the lawsuit effectively put a halt to everything.

The property didn’t sell for two decades, of course, because downtown Joliet is dead as a doornail even on weekdays, when the only folks there are various kinds of government employees and students at the downtown campuses of Joliet Junior College and the University of St. Francis.  Yours truly and her co-authors have been to downtown Joliet frequently over the last two years, and we almost never see any other pedestrian traffic and very little vehicular traffic in the heart of the city.  Private business long ago abandoned downtown Joliet for the newer outskirts, and pulling business back downtown is a tough sell.  Even for Chicago, it took a couple of decades.

Although a few properties have changed hands lately in downtown Joliet and JJC is expanding its campus there, that in itself doesn’t mean a downtown revival is imminent.  You still have to persuade the public to support any business that establishes itself downtown.  That’s a lot likelier if there’s foot traffic downtown – like, say, from people who live there.

Which makes us wonder:  why, exactly, does Richard Kavanagh hate so much the idea of having a senior citizens’ complex next door when nobody else is willing to live downtown??  And where have these commercial developments that he so favors been for the last 20 years while St. Mary Carmelite was steadily deteriorating?

Words are wind, Mr. Kavanagh – yours in particular.  And now the city stands to lose a Route 66 historic landmark that might actually bring in tourists because you won’t let it be usefully redeveloped as a historic preservation project.  Hope that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, dude, because it sure sounds dumb to us.

The auction is scheduled for October 23.  And now, we wait.  Perhaps an angel investor will yet materialize, despite the economy.  Or not.

Until next time,

Inside St. Mary Carmelite:  Keith Yearman (L), developer Scott Henry (center), Joe Kubal (R).   Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

Inside St. Mary Carmelite:  my co-authors Keith Yearman (L) and Joe Kubal (R) with developer Scott Henry (center) and the choir loft.  Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.



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