With about a a former school on Alling Street into apartments, a large crowd is expected at tonight's public hearing on the plan.
The hearing is set for 7 p.m. in the Town Council chambers.
Representatives of the developer, Metro Realty, met this past Sunday with parishioners after each mass at . The Roman Catholic church sits across the street from the former Kensington Grammar School and its pastor and parishioners have expressed concerns about the proposal to turn the school into an apartment complex.
On Sunday the Rev. Robert Schlageter, pastor of St. Paul's, devoted his sermons to talking about the proposal and urged parishioners to get involved by attending the zoning hearing. The church is concerned about the project's impact on traffic on Alling Street, and its impact on the church's parking.
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While church officials and parishioners have used the former school site for years for parking, St. Paul's turned down an offer from the town several years ago to take the site for $1.
Mayor defended the latest development plan for the school site, which would include 32-units for affordable senior housing and 34 units at fare market value, saying it would be a boon for the town because it would replace an eyesore.
"It's a good project for the town," Salina said. "I'm a little disappointed because people are looking at the small picture and not the big picture. This property has changed hands three or four times and each time the developer walked away because the KGS building is in such bad shape. It is simply too hard to just restore the one building.
"You're looking at a developer who has done really good work in town and has worked closely with the church and the town to try to be as helpful as possible. The church has used the parking lot there forever but it is private property. If the owner wanted to put up a fence at any time that would be their right. What we are looking at is a blighted building where a disaster could happen at any time and doesn't have much more of a life as a building. I'm disappointed because there is a need for senior housing and this will give them ability to walk to church and to downtown. It will also fit in with our downtown development where people are within walking distance to the train station and the police department. It's an important step."
Schlageter, however, reiterated his concerns about the proposal.
"Like any neighbor of any development project, I immediately became concerned about parking, traffic congestion and I was, and still am, very concerned about how the increased traffic would affect the safety of our 1,400 school and Religious Ed children who move in and out of St. Paul School each week," he said. "I am also concerned about how this will affect our neighbors and their property values. I have consulted with the Pastoral Council and the Parking Committee. I have had several meetings with Attorney Dennis Kern, who has been a big help to us. We even had the developers over to the Friary for a meeting around the dining room table with the Parking Committee. I have to admit that it was a good meeting and I learned a lot about the project."
Salina said that critics should know the entire history of the project.
Kensington Grammar School was an elementary school before it closed. It was then the site of the community center before it was boarded up for good about 15 years ago.
According to Town Council minutes, twice since then, the town attempted to basically give the property to St. Paul Church to do with as it saw fit. At one time it was offered for $1 to the church but St. Paul declined. At another time it was offered at $10,000 but again the church declined.
In the meantime, several developers came in and thought they could save the building and make age-restricted housing there. Each one of them walked away and sold the property because any renovation of it was cost prohibitive.
"I hear and read some comments and I understand that if you want to stir things up all you have to do in this town is make some changes," Salina said. "Not everyone is going to be happy but these developers have worked hard to hear everybody. Some people have asked about installing fencing and the developers are receptive to putting up decorative fencing. They have done good projects in town and they will do everything possible to work with the church and residents. People have talked about parking and traffic and all of that is being dealt with by the developer and the town but it's up to the Planning and Zoning to see if this goes forward. Do I think it's a good project? Yes, I think it's a good project."
The town needs this kind of housing, he added.
"We can always use senior housing in town," Salina said. "To have age-restricted housing across the street from the church seems like a perfect marriage. I don't think anyone doubts that. The other apartments could be used by people who can't afford to buy a house but want to move to or stay in Berlin. Look at a college graduate who can't afford a down payment on a house yet but wants to stay in Berlin; this would be a great option.
"If someone wants to talk about their property values going down, ask them how brand new housing is worse for property values than a blighted building in their neighborhood? That's what KGS is right now. It is an eyesore."
Schlageter said the church as been working on finding additional parking since learning about the KGS proposal months ago.
"When we learned about the possibility of this project last fall, we immediately began working to find other places to park. For a while, we have been in conversation with some of our neighbors about buying their property to expand our parking lot. As I said in the Annual Report, this will not be cheap. We are in the final stages of negotiating with one family whose back yard will yield 50 spaces. It will also give us the possibility of another exit to Grove Hill Street. The Parking Committee also likes the idea of angled parking on Grove Hill Street near our School.
"These two projects will certainly replace some of the spaces we may lose from Kensington Grammar School, should the development go through. The mayor told me and some Archdiocesan officials that he had checked with the planning people and that this would be approved by the town. We are very grateful for his help in this matter."