2014-06-20 / Front Page

It’s official: Armory for sale

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings in the west stairwell of the South Portland Armory, heavily damaged by water after a storm ripped a flagpole off the roof several yeas ago. (Duke Harrington photo) Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings in the west stairwell of the South Portland Armory, heavily damaged by water after a storm ripped a flagpole off the roof several yeas ago. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The city of South Portland has finally elected to cut loose the art deco albatross that’s hung from around its neck since 2006.

On Monday, the city council voted unanimously to sell the former South Portland Armory, located at 682 Broadway, which the city purchased eight years ago for $650,000. The move follows a 5-0 recommendation of the planning board on June 12 to put the building on the market.

While the city hopes a new owner will refurbish the 24,904-square-foot, cavernous structure, built in 1941, the planning board seemed to indicate that the real value is in the 2.75-acre lot, located at the South Portland gateway to the Casco Bay Bridge.

Board members noted that while the former armory “has important architectural features,” it is “obsolete” and “would cost a developer too much to restore.”

“There are many art deco armories across the country, ours is not unique,” wrote the board in its recommendation to the city council.

“Well, these were all marketing tools for us,” said City Manager Jim Gailey with a shrug at Monday’s council meeting.

The council vote authorized Gailey to complete the sale and execute a purchase and sale agreement with a buyer of his choosing. That decision was made possible by an April 7 ordinance change, at which time the council voted unanimously to delete language requiring a sealed bid process when disposing of city-owned land. The new rules stipulate only that, “the council shall indicate the factors it will consider for each property at the time the method of sale is determined.”

In having Gailey conduct the sale as a “for-sale-by-owner” transaction, the council laid out four limitations, not the least of which is the minimum price they deemed appropriate.

In a May 5 executive session, councilors gave Gailey a price range to work with.

“I ... feel as though staff is fully capable of putting this on the market and going through with the process,” Gailey said. “We feel as though there is going to be a lot of interest and that the property will not be on the market all that long.”

Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings said on Tuesday that he and Gailey fielded inquiries from “15 to 20” potential buyers in advance of the official decision to sell. Most, he said, have unspecified business developments in mind, while at least one is interested in converting the building into living units.

Other sale conditions approved by the council include an agreement by any potential buyer to allow the city to maintain a façade easement over the building and create a walking trail across the property to connect the Greenbelt Trail to Hinckley Park. Any buyer must also allow the fire department to continue storing and maintaining its vehicles in the armory’s west wing, at least until the new public works garage is built on Highland Avenue.

In preparation for the sale, the city recently redrew the property line between the armory and the central fire station, as well as the police station.

According to Police Chief Ed Googins, the new survey “will allow us to retain our newly constructed parking area,” built partly on the armory lot. The new property line is closer to the armory building, just 15 feet from the foundation. The line was moved away from Armory Street, which police and fire crews use to access their lots. That line change, along with an electronic gate on Amory Street, would make it difficult for any buyer to use the armory’s garage bays once they are vacated by the fire department.

“Having free flow access into those garage bays may be difficult now,” Gailey said.

Gailey also said trail construction is “very dependent” on securing a property easement from Central Maine Power, whose line passes by the armory on its east side. A plan of the site shows that two oil lines that belong to Portland Pipe Line Corp., one 42 inches wide and the other 30 inches, travel along the CMP strip and under a discontinued road once known as Hanson Street, directly adjacent to the armory.

According to Gailey, Greater Portland Landmarks is willing to be responsible for the façade easement, and the deeded right to maintain the front of the building could go to it, rather than the city.

In 2012, GPL put the armory on its annual “Places in Peril” list, saying, “Because there are no historic preservation protections, changes to the building don’t require official review and the building may be at risk of loss or damage in the future development of the site.”

While agreement to a façade easement would seem to protect the armory from destruction, the planning board, in its recent recommendation, seemed to expect the inevitability of loss.

“The various valuable architectural features, both inside and outside the building, should be carefully photographed, saved during demolition, and possibly incorporated in a new development on the site, or elsewhere,” it wrote.

Although that statement was not part of the board’s formal motion, what it did specifically request was that any reuse or new development on the site confirm to LEEDS standards for so-called “green,” energy-efficient construction.

However, the council declined to make LEEDS certification a condition of sale. This was in part due to Councilor Tom Blake, who is generally an ardent environmentalist, but placed a higher priority on getting the building into the hands of a private developer and onto the tax rolls, over possibly fouling the sale by requiring costly construction alternatives.

“I think it’s time we move on this,” he said. “This has been a sore point in the community for a long time. Nobody likes to look at a building that’s just marginally maintained.”

After the Maine National Guard left the armory, South Portland offered $250,000 for it in 1996, upping its offer to $350,000 in 2001. At the time there was talk of converting the building into a new city hall, or an updated public works garage. Instead, the armory was sold for $550,000 to The Museum of Glass and Ceramics in October 2002. But the museum never fulfilled its dream of creating a showcase for its collection and ended up going bankrupt four years later.

That’s when South Portland finally got the building, for $650,000, although its grand plans also failed to materialize, with even routine maintenance left undone. Today, the roof is shot, water damage abounds, paint is peeling off the walls, interior brickwork and tiling is chipped, bathrooms are nonfunctional and wood paneling in the front office space is falling apart, while the heart of the building, once used for public dances and basketball games, is soaked with grime, the onceshining hardwood floors barely discernible from the dirt.

In 2012, after several years of negotiations, the city leased the armory to Fore River Sound Stage, which planned to create a production facility for film and television. That dream also failed to materialize. Lack of funding had a role, but the project also stalled because, after signing the lease and allowing the sound stage to move in and begin work, the city refused to grant an occupancy permit until certain renovations were completed.

Earlier this year, the city and Fore River Sound Stage negotiated an early termination of the lease, which was to have run through 2016, with an option to buy the building.

News of the lease termination prompted the phones to start ringing in the city manager’s office. But, as Scanlon Street resident Bob Schwartz pointed out Monday, there is a wrinkle to be dealt with before redevelopment can occur.

In 2009, as one of its first moves in preparation of the lease, the city created a Conditional Armory Zone to allow for the intended use as a sound stage. However, with Fore River’s lease no longer in effect, a “sunset clause” on the conditional zone has been triggered, putting the building back it its previous “Residential District A” zoning district.

According to Jennings, almost any new use of the armory building will require a zoning change, which Schwartz suggested some neighbors might oppose, based on noise and traffic considerations. For the city, however, it’s full steam ahead.

“This is a very important hub for the city,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t want to sell it to someone and have it just sit here and continue to decay. We just need to get someone with the resources to bring it back to life and then work with them on whatever the highest and best use might be.”

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