From the Danvers State Hospital Chronicles
Yesterday, a Superior Court judge paved the way for the town to issue a demolition permit to AvalonBay, which plans to tear down most of the 130-year-old former insane asylum to build apartments and condominiums.
A group of local preservationists, the Danvers Preservation Fund Inc. tried to block the demolition, saying the developers failed to follow local regulations when they sought building approval.
The judge's decision appears to clear the last hurdle in AvalonBay's attempts to buy the property for about $20 million and build 419 apartments and 64 condominiums there. About two-thirds of the Victorian Gothic-style Kirkbride building, the site's main attraction, would be demolished.
"Big business once again wins out over preservation," said John Archer, the project's loudest critic. "The enormous material waste will be amazing."
Attorney James Gilbert, representing the preservationists, said his clients will meet in a few days to discuss what their next move, if any, will be.
Meanwhile, town attorney Michael Lehane said he was pleased with the decision and maintained that continuing to delay the project would further jeopardize the portion of the Kirkbride that AvalonBay plans to preserve. "This process has been going on long before the hospital closed," Lehane said. "There comes a point where the process has to come to a conclusion."
AvalonBay Vice President Scott Dale said he believes the judge made the right decision and said the land transaction from the state to AvalonBay would take place in a matter of "weeks to days."
"I'm confident we can move forward on the process that everyone's already worked so hard on," Dale said.
During a hearing in Salem Superior Court yesterday, Gilbert argued that town officials inappropriately interfered in the work of the local historic preservation commission. That body, which could have delayed demolition, never ruled that the 40 buildings on the state hospital land were worth saving.
Gilbert charged that preservation commission members didn't understand the issues they were voting on and were "hoodwinked" by officials from AvalonBay.
"You had a bunch of very confused people who only wanted to do the right thing. ... They were under enormous pressure because of the millions of dollars at stake."
Archer, who has vehemently railed against AvalonBay's plans, voted against preserving the property because he was confused on the vote, Gilbert said. "The system failed in about six different ways," Gilbert said. "Because of that, we're going to watch as buildings on the National Register [of Historic Places] get demolished, and that's just wrong."
But Lehane fired back, attacking Gilbert's theory that the decision was born out of confusion.
"If your case is that you're clients are stupid and can't understand English, then that's a slim reed to rely on," he said.
Lehane said it was the fourth time the preservationists have sought a judge's intervention.
The shuttered mental hospital has attracted artists, historians and ghost hunters fascinated with the architecture and design of the quarter-mile-wide Kirkbride. "Urban explorers," an underground culture of thrill-seekers, have risked arrest by slipping onto the site at night and photographing the building.
AvalonBay attorney Kevin O'Flaherty said both the town and Commonwealth stand to gain if the purchase goes through.
"We have a handful of people that think they know better than everyone else," O'Flaherty said. "They don't represent the public's best interest."