The Augusta City Council has voted to move ahead with replacing the existing police department building, a decision that affords the opportunity to use public infrastructure to enhance the capital city’s growth and development for years to come.

Over the past two decades, recovering from previous years of financial neglect and political drift, city government has compiled an impressive record of rebuilding and replacing its central facilities.

The move of city hall across Bridge Street also freed up space to restore and expand Old Fort Western — after the State House, the capital’s most important historic building. Cony High School moved from crowded Cony Circle to its new site, adjacent to the Capital Area Technical Center, in 2006. The old site was redeveloped, with the historic Flatiron Building as the anchor, and addition of a “green” Hannaford Supermarket close to downtown.

The state opened a new and renovated Kennebec County courthouse complex in 2015, and the city completed a rededicated and expanded Lithgow Library the following year. The fire department was next, with an expanded central station on Rines Hill at the top of Water Street, and a new substation in North Augusta.

Now, it’s the police department’s turn. When city government moved to its new building, police remained behind in the old city hall in inadequate quarters, in a basement prone to flooding.

Finally, the department relocated to the surplus 1940s Naval Reserve Center adjacent to Capitol Park, a move that was essentially a short-term solution in a mammoth building that continues to decay.

City officials have proposed building a new police station on the parking lot next to the old. Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, thinks the council should consider other sites, and he’s right.

One of his ideas, the old waterfront warehouse that was renovated for the Maine State Housing Authority, which is now leaving, is certainly a central location, just down the hill from the fire station.

But the location probably has a higher use, for housing, given the spectacular views over the Kennebec River that have proven such a draw for downtown living. Apartment conversions are selling out quickly, suggesting that — as in cities across America — there’s substantial demand for downtown living.

Hall’s other suggestion, the old YMCA site at the corner of State and Winthrop streets, is more intriguing. Since the YMCA moved to previously city-owned land near the Naval Reserve Center more than a decade ago, and the building was demolished, the site has been vacant and grass-grown, with no apparent demand for it from the private sector.

A government use, given the surroundings, makes more sense, and a new police station would fit right in: across Winthrop Street from the courthouse and other county buildings, and across State Street from the Lithgow Library. The fourth corner, now a bank branch, was once home to a mixed-use building that included apartments and a restaurant — an important clue for redevelopment of the old YMCA site.

With proper design, there could be room for a second building on the YMCA lot that could provide amenities now lacking along State Street, despite the hundreds of employees who work nearby. That might require hiring a private developer, or subdividing the lot, but either way, Augusta could get a lot more mileage out of a new police station at that location than it could by using the existing Naval Reserve site.

Vacant lots are a deterrent to other development when they sit idle too long, as this one has. If a private sector use were going to be found, it probably would have by now.

Sometimes, new uses are opposed by neighbors and others who might tend to resist change, but it’s hard to see how a police station could lead to anything but an atmosphere of greater safety and security. It would also provide a location with quicker response times than either of the other two sites.

City governments can play a major role in whether urban areas grow and succeed, or decline and stagnate. With a new administration due at the Blaine House in 2019, it’s not far-fetched to think that state government can finally become a real partner in Augusta’s success.

Such intelligent redevelopment of the State Street corridor, with benefits to the whole neighborhood, would be a significant achievement. It would also mark the culmination of a concerted round of civic renewal that took planning, patience and perseverance.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 33 years. His new book is “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine.” He welcomes comment at: [email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.