AYER - About 25 people attended an open house held last Saturday at the former firehouse at 14 Washington Street. The tour and informational session was hosted by the selectmen's Firehouse Reuse Committee, chaired by selectman Chair Jim Fay.
The panel is working in advance of October Fall Town Meeting to gather information for voters to decide whether the town should keep or sell the structure to a private owner. Fay said the committee is finalizing its report to the selectmen, due in August, which includes a building assessment prepared by Kang Associates of Sudbury.
Fay said that Kang has deemed the building to be structurally sound but in need of improvements to bring it to code. The committee is not recommending a specific use for the building, whether it's municipally- or privately-owned.
Some visitors asked what uses are allowed in the Downtown Business zone. Ayer Economic Development Director David Maher, who serves on the committee, said the uses could include retail, restaurant or office space. A limousine or taxi company "could walk in here and start tomorrow," said Maher.
Maher also suggested that housing remains "in the top 5" potential uses for the site. "Maybe put 3-4 units of condo style housing inside using the fire station façade. I've seen that in Marlborough." Maher said there's a mixed-use reuse of a Newburyport fire station, too. "It all depends on which direction you go. Once it's sold it's kind of out of our hands except for
The Parks and Recreation and the DPW departments use some space in the building now for dead storage. If the town retains title to the property, some suggested uses include overflow record storage for town hall and extra meeting space. Some have suggested the town rent the space for private and non-profit use. If converted into a community center, the committee suggested that art classes, a day care center or a teen center could blossom in the space.
The committee determined it would cost $130,000 to demolish the building. The Assessor's Office values the building at $460,300 (up from $425,400 the year before). The Assessor's Office values the quarter-acre plot at $80,700.
Kang Associates has determined that the adaptive reuse of the building for an as-of-yet unspecified municipal use would cost upwards of $1,684,338 including a $300,000 elevator to access the second floor. The $1.68 million number is vastly lower than the $2 million to $5 million estimate discussed by Fay in late April. At the committee's April 23 meeting, Fay said that the panel knew of two unnamed private investors who've expressed interest in purchasing the property.
Kang recommended that the original 1934 brick 2,660
With the wings removed, Kang suggested parking spaces be added to either side of the building which currently sits snuggly on the lot lines around the structure.
The original firehouse was built by the Depression Era Works Progress Association (WPA). The additions were added in 1960, 1970 and 1996. The building ceased serving as a firehouse in May 2006. The town's new firehouse is at 1 West Main Street.
The committee is working to provide "all available information for the voters of Ayer" to make "an informed decision on the disposition of this property," said Fay.
--FIREHOUSE FALL OUT
Kim Pearl's house abuts the firehouse on Pleasant Street. "I grew up in the backyard. I played in this fire station. I can't tell you how many times I went down the fire pole." Pearl said she has several family members who served in the Ayer Fire Department over the years.
She suggested that the second floor meeting room should go if the building is being restored with an eye towards historical accuracy, "That's not original."
The rear wall of the original firehouse stands on her back lot line. Pearl said she watches raccoons and squirrels enter the structure daily.
"If you go to the back of it, you see the roof coming down. You see trees growing out of the gutters," said Pearl. "I'm waiting for it to fall. For me it's not pretty to look at. I pick up the debris in the back yard all the time."
The answer is easy for Pearl. "I'd like to see it gone. I really don't think the kids would use it as a teen center. I really don't. They tried it many times in Ayer. For me, I'd like to see it gone. I don't have a pretty thing to look at. I have to admit, I came in with a negative attitude."
Fay said it remains a town decision. "If it's not cost efficient and it's not viable then don't waste your money," said Fay. "We may have our own personal preferences. We just want to be able to answer every question."
J.J. Lomartire of upper Pleasant Street asked if there was any oil and asbestos contamination on the site, adding "I'm sure there's a lot of lead paint in here."
Fay said that hasn't been included in the estimates. "So it could go up higher?" asked the woman.
Fay said any such discovery is rolled into the $1.68 million figure in terms of contingencies. "I'd like to think it will come in on time and under budget."
"That's a nice thing to think," answered Lomartire.
Alan Wilson asked if there was any historical preservation criterion that must be followed. Fay said some of the façade work would not meet state historical preservation standards "but it would generally be the appearance of the old fire station."
Historical Commission member Ruth Rhonemus said there are exterior preservation requirements on Town Hall which "run with the building." Any listing on a state or national historical register gives the building "recognition but not protection."
Fay said that Firehouse Reuse Committee member Alene Reich, who was not present Saturday, has indicated that there could be historical preservation funds available for the project. Fay suggested that selectmen-controlled Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) monies could also be tapped for the project. "When I say 'grant money,' that's a broad brush," said Fay.
Lora Haines of Washington Street asked how much document archival space is needed. "Ask any of our department chiefs," said Fay. "We've got documents stuck in every corner of every office of the 1871 building [Town Hall]."
Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said, "We have one of the best town halls in the commonwealth. It's spectacular." But storage space within Town Hall has become a "challenge."
The firehouse serves as unheated dead storage space now for documents though the space is not climate controlled. "There just is no room at town hall. If they were to move in the direction of a multi-use scenario, there would be some potential interest from the town as a piece of this to still have a municipal function," said Pontbriand with a caveat. "If the voters so decide."
In the meantime, Pontbriand said the staff is considering "other ways to store" town documents, including scanning technology and computer storage.
"With the prevailing wage law, it just sounds - I don't pretend to be an expert - but to spend $1.6 million to net 6,000 square feet of space sounds like crazy money," said Neal Widette of Pleasant Street. "But I don't pretend to know what the answer is."
"Where there's a will, there's a way," said Fay.
Lomartire said while "it's a beautiful building" she thinks the "town would struggle" to fund the firehouse rehabilitation project. Lomartire said the Pleasant Street School elderly housing project was beautifully restored without town ownership.
Widette agreed and gestured towards the Fletcher Building on Main Street. Purchased by Robert France, the building is undergoing extensive interior and exterior restoration with an eye towards historical characteristics of the building.
"The way he's doing that building is the way this building should be rehabbed," said Widette. "If it's going to be done, it should be done right and not with a tight budget in mind."
Haines would like to see the second floor space used as a community center. "Meetings, concert space for small acoustical performances, quilting guilds there used to be a cribbage club Saturday mornings at the Stage Coach Inn."
Haines said Ayer needs community space, saying that's "pretty much non-existent in town now." Haines suggested the town could staff the building with SHAVE senior citizens looking to work off their property tax bills with community service, a measure approved by voters at Annual Town Meeting in May.
"Sell it and you lose control," said Haines. "It could be another tavern or bar, but I think we have enough of those," said Haines.
Follow Mary Arata at Twitter.com/maryearata and Facebook.com/mary.arata.