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Madison church seeks to turn school into housing

By DOUG ERICKSON
Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A large Downtown Madison Catholic church wants to convert a historic school building on its property into rental housing for college students, three years after a different housing proposal by the church hit snags and was abandoned.

The latest proposal by leaders of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, 120 W. Johnson St., would turn the former Holy Redeemer School into apartments at an estimated cost of $4.2 million, according to Monsignor Kevin Holmes, Holy Redeemer’s priest.

Some resistance to the idea already has surfaced among parishioners who want to keep the building for church use. It’s unclear how widespread the opposition might be or whether it would jeopardize the project.

Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents the area, met recently with representatives from the Madison Catholic Diocese and city planning staff and came away encouraged.

“I think the diocese has a winner here,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal. “At first glance, there are no red flags. The best part is the adaptive reuse of a beautiful historic landmark.”

Holmes said the proposal has received an enthusiastic response and a recommendation to proceed from the finance council of the Cathedral Parish. That’s the new entity created with the 2008 merger of three Downtown Catholic congregations, including Holy Redeemer. Holmes leads the parish.

Three years ago, Holy Redeemer sought to build a five-story apartment building on a portion of its parking lot. Some parishioners said the idea took away too many church parking stalls, and they were concerned about the potential for noise and crime. The project ultimately died when the church couldn’t find a way to make it financially viable.

Holy Redeemer School, built in 1892, closed in 1965. Until recently, the building had been used for programs serving primarily the church’s Hispanic population. Because the building’s roof is leaking, those classes have been moved.

The student housing would be open to anyone but targeted especially for students of St. Paul’s University Catholic Center on the UW-Madison campus, Holmes said. St. Paul’s recently had to eliminate a student housing component to its proposed new building due to concerns over the building’s mass and height.

Discounted rates or scholarships could be offered to students affiliated with St. Paul’s, Holmes said.

“This proposal keeps the building in service to the mission of the Catholic Church in Madison,” Holmes said. “It’s a wonderful solution, and we can do it without a tremendous out-of-pocket expense.”

Money would come largely from a loan, Holmes said. The project is expected to return a profit to the parish of $55,286 the first year, a sum that would grow to $132,832 by the 10th year, he said.

The completed project “very likely” would be tax exempt as an extension of the church’s ministry, Holmes said. That has been the case with other such housing projects, including Pres House on the UW-Madison campus, which voluntarily makes a payment in lieu of taxes to the city to help cover police and fire services. Holy Redeemer likely would do the same, he said.

The school was designated a Madison landmark in 1999. About two years ago, a handful of parishioners submitted a proposal to Holmes asking permission to begin raising about $2 million to restore the building to full use as a parish center and reception hall.

That proposal, which did not get the go-ahead from church officials, included the restoration of the third floor auditorium into a hall for wedding receptions and other community events. Rental income could have funded ongoing maintenance, said Gail Geib, who attends Mass at Holy Redeemer and was among those who submitted the proposal. She opposes the student housing idea.

“The purpose of any Catholic church is to teach and evangelize,” Geib said. “It’s not clear to me how becoming a public landlord would fulfill that function.”

Dr. Milton L. Pozo, a longtime member who has spearheaded efforts to renovate the school for church use, was more pointed. The student housing proposal “destroys the uniqueness of the building and the missionary spirit and mandate of Holy Redeemer,” he said.

Holmes said restoring the school for church use is not financially realistic because the building is in such poor condition that something must be done immediately. Furthermore, the long-term plan is to rebuild a cathedral Downtown on the site where St. Raphael’s Cathedral was destroyed in a 2005 arson fire, he said. The site is near the Capitol at 222 W. Main St.

When that happens, the three Downtown congregations will use the cathedral’s meeting space for most of their parish activities, Holmes said. “In the meantime, the intention was to make no large investments that would end up being wasted,” he said.

Holmes said he hopes to have city approval for the project by next September, with occupancy in August of 2014.

Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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