AUGUSTA — The conversion of Market Square’s south side into a grassy park officials and merchants hope will inspire people to linger in Augusta’s downtown is underway.

Demolition work, including the removal of a prominent but unhealthy old spruce tree that for decades was the focal point of the city’s holiday tree-lighting festivities, started last week. Work is expected to be complete on the conversion of the spot, at the intersection of Water and Winthrop streets, in mid-August.

The site has long been a public park of sorts, but its primary uses were generally as home to a Kennebec Valley Community Action Program’s Kennebec Explorer bus stop, and the site of public restrooms — first in a small building in the corner, and later, in portable toilets on the site.

Both those functions have been moved just up Water Street a bit, to the parking lot next to Maine State Housing Authority, near an entrance to the Kennebec River Rail Trail.

Freed of those duties, the city plans to have the spot converted into a more open, landscaped gathering place with larger grassy areas, a performing arts space, a historic fountain and better connections to the rest of the downtown.

“One of the things downtowns offer, that you don’t get if you go to a mall, is a sense of place,” said Steve Pecukonis, downtown manager and executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance. “Such as having the river run through the downtown, and having public space that is inviting and comfortable, somewhere you can have a cup of coffee, eat lunch, and just meet and get together.”

The park changes were designed by Jesse Patkus, a University of Maine at Augusta architecture student, downtown building owner and Augusta Downtown Alliance member.

“It makes downtown much more inviting than it already is,” Leif Dahlin, city services director, said of Patkus’ design. “He took the vision of everybody and did the concept of connectivity, to connect this park to the rest of downtown.”

Dahlin said the student-produced design saved taxpayers about $10,000.

The rehabilitation of the Market Square site is expected to cost about $284,000. The total project, including both the work underway now at Market Square and the cost of creating a new bus stop, is expected to cost about $413,000, Dahlin said.

It is funded partially by a $200,000 Community Development Block Grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

The rest of the cost will be covered with city funding, coming from tax increment financing dedicated to making improvements in the downtown area.

Dahlin said it made sense to move the bus stop and restrooms to the same location.

“Our research indicated the folks using the KVCAP bus service were, for the most part, the same ones using the bathrooms; so it made sense to locate the bathrooms where the riders are,” Dahlin said.

The blue spruce previously decorated by the city before Christmas was removed Friday. Dahlin said the tree was in the way of the project but was also diseased, root-bound and old.

“It was a magnificently tired old tree,” Dahlin said. “It served the community admirably but, like any tree or human does, it got old.”

Where the tree was, will soon be a fountain, but not a new one.

Baker Fountain, named for Joseph and Orville Dewey Baker, a prominent Augusta father and son who lived in a home nearby, will be moved to the south side of Market Square. There, the granite fountain will be lined up with the also-granite Olde Federal Building across the street.

Orville Baker was Maine’s attorney general from 1885 to 1888.

The land on the south side of Market Square was previously the site of the Capitol Theater, which showed movies and stage shows and hosted bands before it was demolished in 1982.

Rockport-based Farley & Son is the general contractor on the job.

Jim Goulet, the city’s director of parks, cemeteries and trees, said Farley’s crew is expected to finish work in mid-July. Then city crews will do landscaping and other work to wrap up the project in August.

On Tuesday, an excavator removed the remnants of an old foundation of a small city-owned building on the site, which once housed public restrooms until they were closed in 2011 because they had deteriorated so much they had become unsafe, and were replaced with portable toilets.

A new, smaller building will take the place of that structure, but not house any bathrooms. Dahlin said the building would serve as a “mechanical room” for the city, and contain a water tap, electrical panel and mop room.

Pecukonis said the changes at Market Square reflect a growing trend in urban development, of making public spaces carefully designed amid their surroundings, not just thrown together on land not designated for other uses.

“I’m excited Market Square is going to be one of our first steps in that direction, to really make our downtown public spaces into showplaces for downtown,” he said.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647 | [email protected] | Twitter: @kedwardskj