GARDINER — The Gardiner City Council has declared a Water Street building damaged in the 2015 downtown fire a dangerous building.

That move, which came at Wednesday’s city council meeting, is a step that city officials hope will be the start of a process that ends with the salvation of a building in the city’s historic downtown.

‘This is a declaration to acknowledge there’s a problem. And we know there’s a problem, and we’re trying to do something about it,” Kris McNeill, Gardiner’s code enforcement officer said Thursday. “(It’s) just to be open and transparent and be on the same page as everybody about it.”

David Coulombe, who owns 235 Water St., said he was surprised the city took that action, because he has been talking with the city’s attorney about his plans to renovate the building to turn it into offices.

“I don’t see the dangers that the city is seeing, but that’s just me,” Coulombe said.

Coulombe, who is in construction, said he buys distressed buildings to renovate them, and he thinks his building is salvageable. The fire damaged the third floor of his building, but the rest of the building is fine, he said.

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And while there are internal problems — there are no stairs in the upper floors — the roof is intact and he sees potential in it.

“It’s a historic site, so the city would like to see it stay, and I bought it, because I don’t like to buy buildings and tear them down,” Coulombe said.

The Arcade parking lot side of 235 Water St., the building at center with small balconies, on Wednesday in Gardiner. The building was damaged in a massive 2015 fire that resulted in the demolition of the building beside it and Gerard’s Pizza. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

City officials commissioned Wentworth Partners & Associates of Skowhegan to complete a structural evaluation of the building last fall. During the Sept. 27 inspection, the consultants found deficiencies in the structural strength and stability of the building.

“It is the professional opinion of Wentworth Partners & Associates that the subject building unit is a clear and present danger to the public health and general welfare of the community,” the report finds. “The entire report details deficiencies in the structural strength and stability of the building unit. These deficiencies are overwhelming in comparison to the building unit’s remaining or usable integrity.”

The report also notes that in the consultants’ opinion, the costs to stabilize the building far exceed the possible return on investment, but acknowledges that’s a choice to be made by the owner.

Wentworth Partners & Associates identified immediate actions to be taken.

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If the building is to be preserved, it recommends the owner take action to shore up the masonry wall on the building’s south side, including hiring a licensed structural engineer specializing in historic preservation to develop a plan for that. It recommends taking steps to demolish the portions of the building deemed unfit for service and address the wall between it and the buildings to north.

If the building is to be demolished, the consultants mapped out the steps that would need to be followed.

Following the 2015 fire, the brick building identified as 235 Water St. was torn down, leaving the three wooden buildings to the north of it still standing.

This aerial photo shows the scene on July 17, 2015, the morning after major fire in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

In March 2017, Terry Berry, a Realtor and a Gardiner city councilor, bought the northernmost two buildings, and Ed Raws and Patricia McLaughlin, trustees in Ocean Realty Trust, bought the remaining building and the vacant lot where the brick building had stood.

At the time, Raws said he had plans to develop the property into a bar and adjoining patio by May of that year, but nothing came of those plans.

A little more than a year later, the owners sold the property to Coulombe and Lively Homes. In February 2021, the building was conveyed from Lively Homes to Coulombe for $1.

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The vacant lot was sold to the owners of Gerard’s Pizza for an outside patio.

McNeill said the front two-thirds of the building and the façade appear to be savable, and the rear portion is in worse shape.

The building at 235 Water St., center, with boarded up windows, on Wednesday in downtown Gardiner. The building was damaged in a massive 2015 fire that resulted in the demolition of the building beside it and Gerard’s Pizza. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I have hope that somebody can do something and rehab it, leave at least the facade, and can save it. That’s our goal,” he said.

Coulombe said he’d like to hire Wentworth Partners & Associates for the work detailed, but that would be a conflict of interest.

“We were doing perfectly fine, and there were things I had addressed, but all of a sudden, I had their attorney knocking on my door,” he said.

In the meantime, he said he hopes he might be able to make use of facade improvement funds to help pay for the work on the brick wall, and he’s been working to identify funding sources including grants or no-interest loans.

Berry, who represents District 1 on the Gardiner City Council, abstained from the City Council’s vote.

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