AUGUSTA — City councilors said Thursday where the city puts a proposed new police station could have a wide range of positive effects, so its location should be chosen carefully and with the public’s, not just department’s, needs in mind.

Some councilors expressed support for a downtown location, while others noted the current site on Union Street already has demonstrated it’s a good location for a station.

Some councilors noted if the station were located downtown, it could help bring economic development, by taking the place of vacant lots or older, blighted buildings, and serve to help deter crime in that part of the city.

“I like to take every opportunity we can to remove blight,” said Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti, who said she’d like to see the station built either on the former YMCA lot on State Street or a downtown site currently occupied by former mill buildings at the corner of Water and Laurel streets. “I think a police presence that is seen would go a long way to calming things down in areas that are (crime) hot spots.”

At-large Councilor Marci Alexander said she likes the idea of considering the potential economic effect of a site, but she also thinks the current Union Street site seems to work well for police and allows them to respond, with sirens wailing, without many neighbors to bother.

When building a station first came up, City Manager William Bridgeo initially suggested the best place for it could be next to the current station, roughly where a parking lot used by police is now.

However, at the urging of local downtown advocates, officials are now also considering other locations, in or closer to the city’s downtown area.

Spots identified by the city staff as being potential new locations, which councilors agreed Thursday are worth investigating further, include the former, now vacant, YMCA lot at the corner of Winthrop and State streets; the former Bates mill building, more recently known as the Apgar building and adjacent PJ’s building, at the corner of Water and Laurel streets; and the lower level of the city-owned Augusta Civic Center parking lot.

Bridgeo said that list of potential sites was put together by city staffers by looking at the size of the lot likely required for a new station, of at least 1.5 acres, and searching within areas of the city for a spot that might work. The city will contract with an appraisal firm to appraise roughly what it might cost to acquire the properties not already owned by the city to determine how much cost that could add to a police station replacement project.

Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, said sites looked at but rejected for various reasons included the Maine State Housing Authority property, which is too small and would have additional building costs because it is in the floodplain; the former Hannaford supermarket site on Willow Street, because, Nazar said, it could cost up to $4 million to buy out an existing lease for the building; and a Water Street parking lot, because it would be too small and using it for the police station would take away downtown parking.

Last August councilors voted to set aside $550,000 to fund initial work needed to build a station within the next five years.

City officials have said the current station, in a former Navy Reserve building on Union Street next to the Kennebec Valley YMCA, has floors that aren’t level, leaks in the roof, a heating system that can’t keep up with winter’s cold, water not used for drinking because of concern about lead pipes, and wiring that is outdated and original to the 1940 building.

Officials said it could cost millions to renovate and update the building. Instead of doing that, Bridgeo proposed, in the city’s latest five-year capital improvement plan, to build a station, at a cost estimated to be between $8 million and $10 million.

However, inspecting the current building and examining what it could cost to renovate it so it meets the department’s needs is among the tasks the city has assigned to Artifex, an architectural and engineering firm hired, for about $47,000, to work on the police station project.

Bridgeo said Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, has looked at the city’s debt payments into the future and determined the city would be able to take on an additional $9 million in debt to pay for the station without an increase in the property tax rate if the project is timed carefully.

Ellen Angel, co-owner of Artifex, who also worked on the planning process for the city’s new North Augusta fire station, noted Police and Fire department buildings need to be built to a higher standard to ensure public safety is protected in times of emergencies.

“You don’t ever want your Police Department or Fire Department to burn down, or become flooded, or whatever,” Angel said. “I requires a stronger, safer building, so everything is evaluated at a higher level. Because if the Police Department or Fire Department is not safe, then how safe is everybody else? They’re not.”

Funding for the project would have to be approved in a referendum question that, if the proposal moves forward, could go to voters in November.

City police moved to the current building about 20 years ago, from old City Hall on Cony Street.

City officials said if area residents think they know of other properties in the city that would meet the criteria and be a good location for a police station, they should contact the city within the next two weeks.

 

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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