Portland’s city manager has proposed building a new public safety building on a piece of state-owned land near the Cumberland County Jail that also is being considered for a new homeless shelter.

City Manager Jon Jennings unveiled the idea Tuesday as the council’s Economic Development Committee went into closed session to discuss a possible land swap to acquire three state-owned parcels, including the site near the jail, in exchange for city-owned land at the International Marine Terminal.

The proposal could complicate planning efforts to replace the city-run Oxford Street Shelter for single adults, which has been in Bayside for 30 years. The shelter relocation process has been contentious since a plan was announced last summer to build a new shelter at the city-owned Barron Center. Just last week, the council subcommittee overseeing the search identified the state-owned land on County Way as one of three viable options for a new homeless shelter. Some residents in the Libbytown neighborhood quickly criticized the council for the way it’s conducting the search.

However, Jennings and City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, said the two proposals are not mutually exclusive. They maintain that the 10-acre site is large enough to build a new public safety building and a new homeless services center, even though the land is split by the Fore River Parkway and police are looking for enough parking for cruisers and other vehicles.

“Now that it is part of the public dialogue, I think it will be a consideration going forward,” Ray said about possible dual use of the site. “Clearly people are concerned about potential social impacts of a homeless services center and it’s worth discussing what role a public safety building nearby could play in minimizing such impacts.”

Residents of Bayside have complained that drug dealers and others come to the neighborhood to prey on people who congregate there for shelter and other basic services.

PROBLEMS AT CURRENT POLICE STATION

The City Council would need to approve the land swap with the state, as well as the shelter and the public safety building plans before either or both could move forward. While the idea of a new public safety building has not been discussed publicly by the council, councilors have expressed support for a new shelter and have been conducting a search for the right location. Other sites being considered for a new homeless shelter are Angelo’s Acre on Commercial Street near the Casco Bay Bridge and 654 Riverside St. Both are owned by the city.

On Tuesday, Jennings told the Economic Development Committee that he wants to create a new public safety building for police and for fire department administrators and command staff in Libbytown. If the state land is acquired by the city, staff would issue a request for qualifications for a potential developer, who would build and own the building and lease it back to the city. A similar ownership structure is being considered for the new shelter, which, unlike the current shelter, would have an on-site soup kitchen and health clinic, among other services.

Jennings said the public safety proposal is just now coming forward publicly because interim Police Chief Vern Malloch requested $600,000 to replace the windows at 109 Middle St. The current downtown headquarters is not handicapped accessible and the basement, where police store criminal evidence, has been leaking for over 30 years, said Malloch. The current headquarters lacks enough parking for police cruisers and employees, he said.

“These are not easy fixes,” Malloch said. “From a policing standpoint, it doesn’t really matter where we’re located in the city.”

In 2017, the city’s capital budget foreshadowed a $100,000 investment in 2019 to create a master plan for a public safety building. That funding was not included this year, but again staff signaled an intent to seek $300,000 for a master planning effort in a few years, as well as $300,000 to waterproof the building, $300,000 to replace the brick plaza and $100,000 to replace the concrete steps and railings. The department has been seeking funding to replace its windows since 2013, when it was estimated to cost $382,500.

PRIME REDEVELOPMENT LOCATION

On Tuesday, Fire Chief Keith Gautreau also supported moving his staff and commanders to a new facility at County Way from their current location at Central Station, near City Hall. That proposal would not change the city’s plans to rebuild and renovate its current fire stations.

Jennings said moving the police headquarters would allow the city to sell 109 Middle St., which he described as “a very valuable piece of property.”

“It is one of the best locations in the city for redevelopment,” Jennings said in an interview Wednesday.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said this was the first time he has heard of the proposal to build a new public safety building at County Way, although Jennings has mentioned the poor conditions of the current police headquarters during budget discussions. Strimling suggested that he was not concerned about any potential impacts on the shelter search, because he opposes the plan for a large, 150-bed shelter. Strimling instead would like to see several smaller city shelters, even though service providers have indicated such a scattered site model would be impracticable to fund and staff.

“I think it is a compelling idea,” Strimling said, noting the possibility of generating revenue by selling the existing police headquarters. “Some of the revenue from (the) sale could help fund housing.”

In addition to acquiring the County Way site in the proposed land swap, the city also would receive the state-owned Park and Ride next to the Miss Portland Diner on Marginal Way, as well as the Union Branch rail line. Jennings said the state has committed to redevelop the former rail corridor into a shared bike and pedestrian pathway from State Street to Park Avenue.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings


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