Written by Doug Erickson, Wisconsin State Journal
Several years ago, leaders of the Madison Catholic Diocese realized they had a big challenge on their hands with the Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center, a former seminary and home to the diocesan headquarters.
The majestic but aging building on the city’s Far West Side had become costly to maintain, with only about one-third of it being used on a regular basis.
The diocese hired a developer, and today, about half of the building has been converted to private-market apartments, adding millions of dollars to the city’s tax base. The $21 million project celebrated its grand opening in August, and all 53 apartments are now occupied, ahead of expectations.
“There’s more life to the building now — more people, more activity,” said Monsignor James Bartylla, the diocese’s second-ranking official, adding that the project keeps the “legacy property” in the diocese while preserving much of its spiritual and cultural identity.
The building at 702 S. High Point Road, a few blocks south of the Beltline, opened in 1964 as Holy Name Seminary, a high school for boys interested in possibly becoming priests. The seminary closed in 1995.
The building was rechristened in 1997 as the Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center, honoring the founding bishop of the diocese. Its new name, Holy Name Heights, brings the site back full circle.
For apartment dwellers, it offers one of the more unusual residential settings in the city.
The diocesan headquarters remain, imbuing the building with a sense of the sacred. Tenants have 24-hour access to the building’s centerpiece, an on-site chapel with soaring stained glass windows and a 360-piece mosaic that rises three stories behind the altar. Mass is celebrated daily during the week.
For a more secular experience, there’s a full-size gym, newly restored to its retro glory. The 72-acre site offers 2.5 miles of walking paths, a running track, a baseball diamond and fields for football and soccer.
Other amenities include two interior courtyards with arched walkways, a theater room with a 100-inch screen, and a lounge with a balcony offering panoramic views of the city and state Capitol.
“It just seems so special here,” said tenant Christina Busse, 33, a stay-at-home mom who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, Phillip, 35, and their 21-month-old son, Cephas.
While anyone can live at the site, diocesan officials thought the apartments might attract mostly empty nesters and Catholics. The appeal has been broader.
Busse, who is Lutheran, said she enjoys praying in the chapel and has found her neighbors to be a friendly bunch that ranges in age from young professionals to retirees. Many seem eager to make personal connections, she said.
“People seem to want relationships here,” she said.
The site appealed to the couple for its serenity, its religious aspects, and its amenities, especially the acres of outdoor space their son can explore as he grows. Their apartment is about a 10-minute drive from Epic Systems Corp., where Phillip Busse, 34, works in technical support services. Christina Busse estimated that nearly a dozen other tenants also work at the electronic medical records giant.
Among the couple’s neighbors are Paul and Kate Stauffacher, the kind of tenants diocesan officials knew would be especially drawn to the property. Retirees in their 70s, they are devout Catholics whose two sons graduated from the former seminary.
The connection for Paul Stauffacher goes even deeper. He taught and coached at the seminary early on, then went on to serve as its principal from 1978-87. His apartment is the seminary’s former weight and equipment room where he spent so much time as a coach.
“This just struck us when we saw it,” Stauffacher said. “There is a certain element of nostalgia, but it goes beyond that. We’re daily Mass attendees, so the chapel is very convenient. We love to get out and exercise on the grounds, and our grandchildren love the gym.”
For some, there’s the added appeal of occasionally bumping into Madison Bishop Robert Morlino, who recently moved into one of the new apartments. He had been living for more than a decade in the rectory at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, three blocks off the Capitol Square.
The diocese, which continues to own the property, hired Gorman & Co. to redevelop the site. The company, based just south of Madison, has stayed on as the on-site manager for the apartments.
Gorman & Co. specializes in adaptive reuses of landmark buildings and has had a long association with the diocese. It successfully nominated the former seminary as a historic landmark. The building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The designation allowed the company to access $5.8 million in historic tax credits — a critical piece of the financing — and also protects the building’s architectural legacy, said CEO Gary Gorman, a lifelong Catholic who grew up in the Madison area and has served as board president of Catholic Charities Madison. The project was “uncommon” and close to his heart, Gorman said.
“It did something really positive for a diocese that I’ve been a member of for 60 years,” he said. “I’m proud of both the physical and financial results, and in particular the fact that a number of people now get to call this beautiful building their home.”
The city has determined that 46.63 percent of the building is now taxable, with the rest remaining tax-exempt due to its religious use, said Scott West, a city commercial property appraiser. The assessed value of the taxable portion is currently set at $3.43 million by the city, but that number reflects only partial completion of the project, West said. The full assessment, out this April, likely will be around $5.1 million, he said.
The diocese’s 2016 tax bill for the site is $77,532. That figure is based on only the partial assessment.
The project’s total costs of $21 million are so much higher than the city assessed value because the total costs reflect work done on the entire site, not just the part turned into apartments, said Ted Matkom, president of the Wisconsin market for Gorman & Co. The project also addressed major maintenance issues on the aging building such as roofing and plumbing, he said.
One-bedroom apartments rent for $955 to $1,285 per month, while two-bedroom units go for $1,369 to $1,970. That’s probably a little less than top-of-the-line luxury units in Madison, but in the middle to upper range, said Rick Mason, property manager.
Bartylla said the project could help other dioceses think creatively about unused or vacant properties.
“I think we’ve shown that you don’t have to sell church property when it’s underutilized,” he said. “There might be an opportunity to continue ownership while finding something that works for both the diocese and the community.”
“It did something really positive for a diocese that I’ve been a member of for 60 years. I’m proud of both the physical and financial results, and in particular the fact that a number of people now get to call this beautiful building their home.” Gary Gorman, CEO of Gorman & Co., which redeveloped the former Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center