June 8, 2021, Submitted by Stephen & Whitney Jiranek, Ginger Aborn, and John & Erin Spranger
If you feel strongly about upholding Hingham’s well-preserved historic sites and character, it is crucial to be informed about the construction plans for the Old Ship Church and its Parish House. The strength and sustainability of Hingham’s historic preservation commitment are likely to be tested by plans a private developer may make public as soon as this week, to build a new Parish House on the Old Ship property while converting the current Parish House into multi-unit residences or another use not currently permitted by existing zoning or configuration.
These properties and the surrounding neighborhood are in a “residential” zoning district, and they are governed by very restrictive zoning and other by-laws for very good reason. These zoning ordinances protect not only the historic appearance, but also the historic and residential character of the area, by permitting only single- or two-family residences, and other limited community-based uses (such as schools, playgrounds, and churches).
While the developer has suggested that its plans will comply with these restrictions, no actual plans have been disclosed and circumstantial evidence suggests something to the contrary. This is cause for concern, and community engagement is imperative as the planning and approval process ramps up from this week through the summer and in preparation (likely) for next year’s town meeting.
Larger interests and plans are involved
There is every indication that the Church’s sale of the Parish House to a private developer is just the first of many steps that will threaten to dramatically transform not one but two historic Church properties.
Old Ship Church has already announced that the sale and development of the Parish House are expected to fund the construction of a brand-new Parish House to be wedged onto the sliver of land on the northwest corner of the historically sensitive Church property. Further, a portion of the Parish House property is apparently being sold in order to expand the nearby Lincoln School apartments.
This iconic Church site is not just a local antique treasure, but it is one of the few Hingham properties to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Moreover, extensive public funds have been spent on Old Ship Church’s restoration. If the Church plans to fund the construction of a brand-new parish house for its 200-member congregation in this historically sensitive area through the profits generated by redeveloping its existing Parish House, the Hingham residents with a longstanding vested interest in these properties should be given a full explanation of the entire history and rationale for this plan, the supposed necessity behind it, and its potential impact upon the neighborhood and the Town as a whole.
Necessary and suitable?
Despite the residential nature of the neighborhood and the historic nature of the Parish House, the Church’s Board has displayed a curious and persistent intention to sell the Parish House to a private developer that could redevelop the property as it saw fit.
In 2016, the property was listed on the open market at the above-market price of $4.8MM, despite the fact that the building was in an advanced state of disrepair (due to the Church’s deferred maintenance). When there were no takers, instead of revising its price, as other property owners in the neighborhood would have to do, the Church immediately pivoted towards private development. Embedded in this strategy seems to be an assumption that the zoning restrictions will be relaxed or even changed in order to “save” the Parish House.
This merits the utmost Town-wide scrutiny, especially after a majority of the congregation voted in 2019 to restore the Parish House, but Church leaders continued to reduce maintenance outlays, bringing the property to its current state and creating the need to be “saved.” It is also notable that many people who have opposed the Parish House sale have actively offered to be part of the solution. A neighborhood group, and many members of the Church, reached out to the Board and Minister of the Church, pledging support towards fundraising efforts, and even offering their own funds to help revive the existing Parish House, but the Church leaders have passed such offers over with clear priority to engage seriously only with deeper-pocketed developers. Throughout this time, concerned residents and many Church members have been left with more questions than answers as Church leaders moved inexorably down this more contentious path.
This is not just a Church issue – it is a community-wide issue. To date, there has been little legitimate justification and rationale for the Church’s multi-faceted plan, which increases disruption and density in our historic downtown. It seems to us that maximizing profits from the private sale of one historic church property, in order to build a new structure on another, even more historically sensitive church property, is not consistent with the letter or spirit of the zoning and historic restrictions with which we all must abide.
While these changes most acutely affect nearby residents, these are two highly sensitive sites in Hingham’s Historic downtown that affect everyone. Accurate information upon which to base judgments has been very hard to come by, despite the developer having been engaged in this project for the better part of a year. The time has come for greater transparency, and for the community to play its rightful role in the process.
Setting a potentially dangerous precedent
Most concerning is the downstream effect of expanding structures and residences on the Parish House property in order to achieve maximum profit. Many homeowners in Hingham who dutifully adhere to the Historic District Commission’s protective ordinances might think twice about bearing the high cost of maintaining these properties. They might seek the same lucrative exit from their properties, or see demolition by neglect, as a reasonable alternative to their high maintenance expenses. They will be able to point to exactly this event to rationalize their right to seek a developer bailout as well. This is a slippery slope. The prime location of many historic properties in town will always attract developer interest. In future years, as the conversions of historic single-family residences into development tracts gain in feasibility and viability, our proud legacy of historic preservation will irrevocably lose its impact and enforceability.
We urge respect for our town’s historic zoning, and we hope that our concern will be shared widely and will translate into scrutiny at every point in the upcoming process.
Promoting awareness and respect for historic preservation
Our efforts to raise awareness and illuminate key events stem from a deep respect for what our town has done to date to preserve its historic treasures. These efforts are ongoing and arduous, but everyone gets to enjoy the rewards, which remain a key reason many move to and enjoy living in Hingham. These protections should not be taken for granted. We hope that every member of our community with an interest in holding every historic owner accountable equally regarding historic properties and their protective zoning will attend relevant meetings in order to ask all of the important questions about the past, present, and future.
Stephen & Whitney Jiranek
John & Erin Spranger