AUGUSTA — A third potential site may join the increasingly heated debate over where a proposed new police station should be built.

City councilors have been locked in a long debate over which of two locations — a downtown site at the corner of Water and Laurel streets or a spot on Union Street next to the existing station — should be the home of the proposed new police station. Last week, they added a new site to the discussion in a lengthy and contentious meeting last week.

The new site is the former Hannaford location on Willow Street just across Cony Street from Augusta City Center on the east side of the Kennebec River. The site was considered by city officials previously, and rejected, largely out of concern the site and vacant building there is still under lease to Hannaford. The existing arrangement provides a significant and steady income for the property owners.

However, some city councilors said Thursday they want the city to explore the potential for that former Hannaford site as a police station further. City Manager William Bridgeo said he could pursue negotiations with the property owners, who are four sisters, and Hannaford officials to see if a deal could be reached for the remaining six years of the lease to be bought out so the city could acquire the property.

The land is just across the river from the downtown area and, compared to the downtown site, is much flatter and out of the floodplain and could have lower development costs.

“There is strong interest from constituents in the old Hannaford site,” said Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins, speaking in favor of adding the third site as a potential police station location, despite city officials having previously narrowed the site search down to two locations.

Bridgeo said he’s had conversations with the property owners and Hannaford’s real estate manager, and the property owners indicated they are willing to sell the lot and Hannaford officials would be interested in an arrangement that would allow the company to get out of the remaining six years of the lease.

He estimated purchasing the building and potentially reimbursing the property owners for the lost lease revenues could cost somewhere around $2 million. The property is assessed, by the city for tax purposes, at $1.1 million. He said if the city acquired the lot it would demolish the vacant building there now and build a new station.

But Bridgeo suggested holding off on going after that location until after a scheduled Feb. 24 meeting between city and state Department of Economic and Community Development officials, at which he hopes to learn whether the city could use money sheltered in tax increment financing, or TIF, districts in the project.

Bridgeo has said that he and other city officials believe the city should be able to use some of its TIF funds to help pay for the new station if it is built within the already established downtown TIF district, which includes the proposed site at the corner of Water and Laurel streets. Specifically, he wants to confirm with state officials whether the city could use TIF proceeds to pay the lease costs if a private developer were to build the new police station and lease it back to the city long-term.

He said using TIF funds, which are made up of property tax revenues from new development within a designated area, could dramatically reduce the cost of the project and could make the downtown site the most financially advantageous spot to build the new station. Neither the Union nor Willow street sites are within the city’s designated downtown TIF district.

Judkins agreed the city should wait to see how the Feb. 24 meeting goes before pursuing the old Hannaford site because, he said, if TIF funding can be used to pay the lease costs for a new police station downtown, “it could be a game-changer” by making the downtown site much more cost-effective.

Mayor David Rollins initially said there would likely be no additional public forums specifically dedicated to taking public input about the proposals for a new police station until after city councilors had selected a location. But he changed course and agreed to schedule a public hearing, Feb. 27, to solicit input from residents.

Councilors faced criticism, at a Feb. 13 council meeting, from Mark O’Brien, a former longtime council member. O’Brien said the public hasn’t had adequate opportunities to comment on the potential location and suggested that by not offering that officials are indicating their minds are already made up and nothing that is said by the public will change their view.

He also suggested Rollins has shown a bias, in favor of the downtown location, in how he’s handled the process of considering a new police station.

“Mr. Mayor… you talk about a transparent process, I think that starts from the top,” O’Brien said. “Even the most casual observer knows you favor the (downtown) site. I think you need to allow yourselves to hear from the public about the site. To make a good decision you need to not be afraid of hearing from the public.”

Rollins said he has been upfront about his preference for the downtown site, but said he has overseen the process fairly and welcomes public input.

Rollins also pointedly questioned Ellen Angel, co-owner of Artifex Architects and Engineers, a firm hired to assist the city in designing its next police station. He asked about what he saw as additional square footage and amenities, including a terrace, in the proposed new station design for the downtown site that were not included in the design proposed for Union Street, which he said inflates the cost of the downtown site.

The downtown proposal is estimated to cost about $21.5 million to build.

The Union Street site is estimated to cost $18.3 million, up by about $1 million from a previous estimate, with the biggest change being the addition of funds to stabilize the Union Street site, where recent testing indicated the soil quality is poor.

Rollins urged Angel to take another look at that building design, to see if there were aspects of it that could be scaled back to reduce costs, which she said she would do. He did not make a similar request for the Union Street design proposal.

Angel said there were some features built into the downtown site that were not included in the Union Street site but said they were largely due to the different constraints of the two sites. The flat, spacious Union Street site does not require, for example, a terrace because it would be a single story building. If officers wanted to take a break outside they could simply walk outside.

The downtown site, because it is adjacent to a floodplain, would be two stories with a parking garage on the first story and the area used by police personnel on the second floor. She said most of the cost difference between the two designs is attributable not to more features but due to the need to use more concrete and steel and other building materials to build the two-story downtown structure at a more challenging location.

“The biggest cost difference is having to bring the building up to the second floor, to get out of the floodplain,” she said. “We’re not trying to be the most beautiful station north of Boston or something, we’re just trying to follow best practices and allow for the services the city needs and that the department needs to be accommodated in this building, in a building that should last 75 years.”


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