2015-04-10 / Front Page

City armory overhaul is on track

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


An updated version presented at an April 6 South Portland City Council workshop of how the former National Guard Armory on Broadway might look once transformed into a gas station and cafe. The line along the top is the front wall of the current armory storehouse, which will be demolished. The wall, however, will be kept to preserve as closely as possible the look of the building as seen by motorists entering South Portland from the Casco Bay Bridge. (photo courtesy SPC-TV) An updated version presented at an April 6 South Portland City Council workshop of how the former National Guard Armory on Broadway might look once transformed into a gas station and cafe. The line along the top is the front wall of the current armory storehouse, which will be demolished. The wall, however, will be kept to preserve as closely as possible the look of the building as seen by motorists entering South Portland from the Casco Bay Bridge. (photo courtesy SPC-TV) SOUTH PORTLAND — Changes that will lead to demolition of the back half of the historic South Portland Armory in favor of a filling station are on track, or, as some might say, the fast track.

In a bit of a change from the usual process, the council conducted a workshop on proposed zoning changes needed to facilitate the project at a special workshop session Monday. That gathering was held immediately after the regular meeting at which the council approved a first reading of the amendments

“There has been some concern expressed about … getting the cart before the horse,” said Mayor Linda Cohen. “I had asked that we try to keep our timeframe as close to the planning board’s so the public would not get lost along the process. I just didn’t want anyone to think this was just being pushed forward.”

“We toured a number of groups through that property, and only one was looking at a residential use, and even that would have needed changes. So, regardless, there was going to need to be some rezoning of this property,” City Manager Jim Gailey said.

Still, there was some minor kickback from councilors.

“It gives the appearance that this is a done deal of something we supposedly haven’t seen,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “But I’m willing to go with it. I’m comfortable with this, even though it is a first for me.”

Councilor Patti Smith was critical of holding the workshop after the regular meeting, saying, “In general, I think it’s better to have a workshop when most people will attend and not later at night.” However, she also said she was satisfied the public has had sufficient time to make their views known on the project.

Even so, it appeared the process was moving ahead a little too fast for the developer, at least. According to a memo from Gailey, part of the reason for the accelerated processing was “to have [the] second reading on April 22, in order to complete the sale and allow the developer to begin construction this season.”

However, David Latulippe of Topshambased Priority Real Estate group said his firm can’t make the April 22 meeting.

“If we could postpone that to your first meeting in May, that would be our preference,” he said.

While the decision to approve the first reading of the changes took just six minutes, the council later spent nearly an hour considering the new special zoning district.

As proposed, the Conditional Armory Zone would allow conversion of the building to a gas station and restaurant/ café. Also allowed in the new zone, which really only encompasses the armory lot, are retail stores, child and adult care centers, personal services, business and professional offices, as well as offices for charitable and philanthropic organizations. The zone also allows for “municipal buildings and municipal uses.”

One restriction is that any restaurants or stores on the site, as well as the proposed gas station, cannot be open between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. In addition, a drive-thru window will not be allowed.

Those restrictions were made as a compromise for surrounding homes, as was a ban on so-called auditory advertisements — the speakers that have proliferated on gas pumps in recent years.

The zoning language also includes historic terms, such as “head house,” the National Guard term for the front half of the building, where the armory officers were located, which will be retained.

“I can’t help it, that’s what it’s called,” said City Planner Tex Haeuser. “But we’re not going to be selling (drug) paraphernalia there, or anything.”

“From the city’s point of view, this is a interesting project, because it’s very cutting edge,” Haeuser said. “For example, they’re preserving the head house and they’re putting the gas pumps out behind the building, where they will be much less visible than the typical gas station.”

“We’re excited because we are doing something that only a couple of developers in the entire country are doing,” said Latulippe, “although it has taken quite a bit of working with our tenant to make them understand they don’t need the gas pumps out front.”

Rusty’s Market in Topsham, which is a similar set-up built by Priority, won a Project of the Year award from the Maine Association of Planners in 2013.

“We’re really trying to preserve and celebrate this building,” said Latulippe.

While the head house colonnade and art deco architecture would be preserved, and the detailed masonry, which depicts military vehicles and armaments, repaired, Priority will not attempt to install period windows. Although windows will be chosen to complement the style of the building, they will be new, energy efficient panes.

Also planned for the site is a public gazebo to be placed out front, along Broadway. However, Latulippe noted, the trouble at the moment is finding an architect who can design and build a gazebo in an art deco style.

According to Haeuser, the new zoning rules “will allow the planning board to have a conversation” with the developer on signs, although he allowed what goes up could still be “quite large.”

However, the more pressing concern for some abutters, including Stephanie Gilbert, is a proposed walking path proposed for the Central Maine Power easement that runs next to the armory lot, linking the Greenbelt Trail to Hinckley Park. Residents like Gilbert are afraid trail users will be able to look into their homes, Haeuser said.

“The trail is far from being set in stone,” Gailey said.

In addition to gasoline, the site also will include at least two high-speed electric charging stations, Latulippe said.

“I think it’s an amazing project,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “Like everyone else, my main concern is traffic flow. But I think until you actually do it, you’re not going to know how it will work.”

A paper street on the eastern side of the building will be used for access and egress off Broadway.

“I’m very excited about this project,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “This is a very positive change for the community. It also helps us get a monkey off our back.”

South Portland bought the armory building, located just off the Casco Bay Bridge, in 2006 for $650,000, amid talk of converting it into a new city hall. But almost no money was put into the building for maintenance and repairs and a hole in the roof, created when a storm took down the flagpole perched atop the colonnade, was never repaired. The city subsequently experienced heartburn in its attempts to lease the site. Water damage, city officials admit, has been significant. By 2012, Greater Portland Landmarks had put the armory on its inaugural list of “Places in Peril,” while the city reduced its own assessment of the property to $461,000.

Priority has agreed to pay $700,000 for the property. Latulippe said his company is in “deep negotiations” with tenants for the gas station, the café, and second-floor office spaces.

“I’m really pleased,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of buzz in the community about what is happening there. The developer has done a really good job of meeting with people in the community and turning some people around who were dead-set against the project.”

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