2015-11-13 / Community

Planners OK armory redevelopment

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After more than a year of anticipation and a slow slog though requisite prep work, redevelopment of the former National Guard Armory building on Broadway became a reality Tuesday night.

The planning board unanimously approved plans to turn the historic building into a convenience store and gas station.

In November 2014, Priority Real Estate Group of Topsham agreed to buy the building from the city for $700,000 after it had been on the market for several months.

Preparatory to an agreement to unload the building, an admitted albatross in city hands since 2006 that seemed to defy every attempt at rehabilitation, the council amended its process for selling public property. It April 2014 it empowered City Manager Jim Gailey to dispose of sites as he sees fit, absent the traditional sealed-bid process, provided he meets certain guidelines set out by the council. In the case of the armory, the chief consideration included nailing down a deal to preserve the historic art deco façade of the armory, built in 1941 and festooned with concrete reliefs of various military hardware and armaments.

The city has never released information on who expressed interest in buying the armory, what each developer offered, or what plans each had for the site. However, at Tuesday’s meeting, Priority Group spokesman David Latulippe acted as if he was privy to the list.

While Priority will make way for 10 bays of gas pumps by demolishing the main 25,000-square-foot section of the armory – an expansive space once used for vehicle storage, but also well-remembered to locals as the site of community dances and basketball games – it will save the two-story armory office facing Broadway, known as the Head House.

“We were the only ones with a solution to preserve the Head House,” Latulippe said. “All of the others said that because of the site concerns, it has to be demolished.”

Previous announced plans for the Head House included a café. However, apart from second-floor offices, only a convenience store was referenced during Tuesday’s meeting. A hotly debated sign for the new Irving gas station included a logo for Circle K. However, Latulippe said the store will instead be a Rusty’s Lantern.

A Rusty’s Market built in Topsham by the Priority Group won a Project of the Year award from the Maine Association of Planners in 2013, a possible indication of what to expect from the armory rebuild.

One challenge for the site had been the road layout, with some questioning whether a gas station could be made to work where Broadway intersects with Waterman Drive and the entrance to the Casco Bay Bridge. However, Priority did obtain a traffic permit from the Maine Department of Transportation, based on a plan developed by Gorrill Palmer Consulting, of Gray.

That plan makes all but two of eight turns in and out of the site right turns, one of which will include an extended turn lane between the armory and Anthoine Street, in front of the fire station. The hardest entry point may be coming off of the bridge, which will require a right on Broadway and then an immediate left into the station.

Still the traffic study predicts high volume, including 206 visitors during the morning peak hour commute, and 329 in the afternoon. According to City Planner Tex Haeuser, Priority will pay an $18,620 traffic impact fee to the city, in addition to the street work it will undertake.

“We think we’ve got the traffic issues solved,” Latulippe said. “What we’re doing is not that complicated, it’s just expensive.”

Even so, Latulippe said it is clear getting into the station will be difficult, if not impossible on occasion.

“We’re a convenience store,” he said. “But we understand that at certain times of day we’ll become an inconvenience store.”

Still, the need for a gas station in that area is evident in the layout, which includes 60 parking spots.

Every abutter and interest group representative who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting praised both Priority and Latulippe for openness and willingness to accommodate concerns over the past year.

“Their work reaching out to the community over the past year has been great,” said Hudson Road resident Stephanie Gilbert. “I feel very informed on the process of this site.”

Apart from assurances the gas pumps will not “talk,” which Latulippe readily gave, Hudson’s only concern was with a proposed walking trail on the site.

Once condition of the sale set by the city council was receipt of a public easement that could be used to link South Portland’s Greenbelt Trail with Hinckley Park. As envisioned, that trail would run largely across the Central Maine Power line corridor that runs between the armory property and the homes on Hudson Road. However, Gilbert and others said they’d prefer the trail to run on the other side of armory lot, next to the police station, in order to put a little extra distance between their homes and hikers.

While Priority said the company is willing to accommodate any trail design that “works with our site plan and is safe for pedestrians,” Haeuser said the request could prove “problematic,” give the plan and the layout of the fenced-off police parking and storage area.

Debate on the trail layout lasted several minutes, with Latulippe finally asking that a final design not hold up approval of the overall plan, or that it hold up an occupancy permit on the $4 million development

“We’ve already proven we’re going to be good neighbors,” he said. “Where the community decides it wants the path, we’re going to work as hard as we can to put the path there. But what if this takes longer than when I’m ready to open?”

Latulippe noted the granting of an easement, if not the actual placement, is in the purchase and sale agreement with the city, and will be written into the deed. Gailey has said the Nov. 10 vote of the planning board was the last remaining hurdle to signing over that deed, which should now happen “within the next week or two.”

The other item bandied by planners Tuesday night was a pylon sign to be put in front of the armory. While signage on the building itself will be limited, Irving did require some streetside identification. Latulippe said convincing Irving to place the pumps behind the head house, instead of in front of the building, as is traditional for gas station layouts, was a challenge. The sign, he said, was not a war he was willing to wage.

“We understand the sign is a deal breaker,” Haeuser said.

However, that said, the design of the sign failed to impress.

“We completely understand there has to be a sign in front of the building. The business has to advertise that it is there,” said Jessica Routhier, speaking on behalf of the city’s arts and historic preservation committee. “We were, however, not completely excited with the design of the sign. We would like to see something that is a little more historically accurate and aesthetically engaging than what is here [on the plan],”

Planning board member Linda Boudreau was more direct.

“I hate the sign,” she said. “I can’t help it. I just hate it. It’s ugly. It’s just plain ugly. It’s 18 feet of plastic out front of an historic building.”

That said, planning board member Isaac Misiuk cautioned against letting the sign derail the project.

“I’m concerned we are getting into the weeds on something that we really can’t say too much on, otherwise we lose this business in its entirely,” he said.

On that front, Boudreau agreed, saying the project, on balance, is a winner, and one that would surely have been rejected in the recent past.

“This is way beyond anything that was envisioned five or 10 years ago,” she said. “It’s amazing how far the city has come in its acceptance of a project like this for that site.”

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