2012-07-20 / Community

Facebook post spurs library discussion

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

This property at 159 Cottage Road will be put up for auction on Aug. 8. (Jack Flagler photo) This property at 159 Cottage Road will be put up for auction on Aug. 8. (Jack Flagler photo) South Portland Public Library Director Kevin Davis put up a post on the library’s Facebook page on Tuesday, July 10 before he headed into a department head meeting.

Davis said he likely won’t make that mistake again.

He said his phone continually “dinged” throughout the meeting with comments on the post, in which Davis floated the idea that the library go to the city to purchase an adjacent property, currently vacant, that used to be a gas station.

Some Facebook users suggested a green space to sit and enjoy an ice cream from Red’s Dairy Freeze across the street. Others floated the idea of a community garden or a cafe. Davis said the number of comments quadrupled the response to anything else the library had posted.

But it appears none of those ideas will be implemented.

The South Portland City Council called a special workshop on Monday, July 16 to discuss the property, which will go up for auction on Aug. 8 and, if there is a buyer, change ownership for the first time in nearly three decades.

Currently, Getty Realty owns the property located at 159 Cottage Road and has rented it to various tenants that have cycled through over the years. Stephen Brezinski of Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management said the department was in talks with the Tyree Co. regarding clean up of the site, but stalled when Getty filed for bankruptcy. The former gas station had its underground tanks removed from the property, but according to a 2011 report from the MDEP that South Portland Mayor Patti Smith distributed to councilors on Monday, the property “is understood to be not clean to MDEP satisfaction.”

“It was clear enough to me that the property wasn’t environmentally clean and I wanted to bring that to the council’s attention,” Smith said.

Smith added the city still doesn’t know the environmental hazards present in the building itself, but the MDEP report presented enough information for her to question buying the property.

“There are so many question marks, and I thought it wasn’t in our best interest,” she said.

Brezinski wrote in the same report, “I understand that oil-contaminated soil in the piping and dispenser areas was not cleaned up ... and remains. Getty has not cooperated in a timely manner to remediate and assess the prohibited discharges”

Brezinski said in the report the MDEP discussed the removal of underground gas tanks and contaminated soil as far back as 2006, but he said Tyree, which Getty hired to handle the cleanup, did not respond in a timely manner.

“After reading the information that Mayor Smith provided ... I have serious concerns with the acquisition of the property at this point,” said South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey, who said he would not have called the workshop had he reviewed the information earlier in the week.

“The DEP is not happy,” he added. “That’s not a predicament I want to get in. I’d rather remove ourselves.”

Because of the environmental concerns, it is possible that the property will not be sold at all at the Aug. 8 auction. If that is the case, Smith said she was not sure about the legal implications for the leaked oil, but she did say, “Whoever owns the property has the responsibility to clean it up.”

Large companies such as Starbucks or Walgreens might have that capacity, Smith said, but Councilor Tom Coward said he does not want the city to buy the site “for one dollar” if it meant taking on a project to clear the contaminated soil that could cost six figures.

Despite the city’s decision, Davis said he still thinks the conversation about the property was valuable because it involved so many members of the public. He said he “didn’t want to go down this route” on his own without first finding out if he had public support, and after the Facebook response he felt more comfortable going to the council.

The Friends of South Portland Public Library organization also made a pledge to match the city of South Portland’s financial contribution should the city have gone to the auction table.

While that didn’t end up happening, Davis said he was appreciative of the gesture and “most taken with how excited people were to be involved in the discussion.”

“It’s great to see that someone at the library is keeping your eyes open and looking for opportunities,” added Councilor Gerard Jalbert.

Davis said the Cottage Road property acquisition would have been only part of an ongoing project to make the library more visible and aesthetically pleasing. He said the 1966 design by local architect John Leasure is still attractive today in a “retro-cool” way, and Davis showed off the background of his phone, a view of the library from Broadway lit up at night.

But for years, Davis said the building was neglected, and that represented a general stagnation for the library as a whole.

“The building doesn’t need to be updated or rebuilt but it does need more exposure,” Davis said.

So, in fall 2011, parks and recreation took down rhododendron bushes that had become overgrown and created “kind of a freak show” on the side wall of the library. That wall will be repainted. Now, Davis said he gets frequent comments from people who notice the design of the library for the first time, especially the stone walls that face Broadway and Cottage Road that had been obscured by the bushes.

Although the Highland Avenue entrance to the building may still be slightly obscured by the former gas station, Davis seemed satisfied with the progress the library had made over the last few years, both in engaging the public through social media or events, as well as literally becoming more visible to those passing by.

“There’s greater sense of pride in the place. I want the place to be seen,” he said.

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