SACO – To demolish or develop: That’s the choice for city councilors as they consider the fate of Saco’s old Central Fire Station.

The brick firehouse on Thornton Avenue has sat empty since April 2011, when the fire department moved to its new home on North Street.

The city has fielded a handful of offers, but none near the $474,000 asking price.

Now, councilors are poised to vote on a plan to demolish the fire station and administration building to make way for a parking lot.

If they reject that option, they will consider two proposals from real estate developers who are interested in buying the buildings to create housing.

The council is expected to vote Aug. 20, after a public hearing.

The fire station was built in 1939 as a project of the Works Progress Administration, intended to provide jobs during the Great Depression. It is the only WPA building in Saco, and it’s eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, say city officials.

The council voted in March 2011 to list the station with a commercial broker for $474,000. Seven months later, it decided to solicit bids to demolish the fire station. It tabled a motion to demolish the building when Cynthia Taylor of Housing Initiatives of New England expressed interest in buying the property.

Taylor wants to buy the building for $50,000, an offer the city’s staff recommends “because of the attractive historic nature of the building and the plans Cynthia Taylor has for the property and the adjacent property.”

She owns other property on Thornton Avenue and plans to develop senior housing and community space.

Mayor Mark Johnston said Taylor wants to invest $800,000 to $1.2 million to renovate the fire station, which has asbestos in its floor and heating system. Her project would put the building on the tax rolls and generate $18,000 to $20,000 a year in taxes, he said.

Taylor could not be reached for comment Friday.

The city also has an offer from King Weinstein, a real estate developer based in Old Orchard Beach, to buy the property for $60,000.

Councilor Marston Lovell supports demolishing the fire station to make way for all-day parking that he says is needed for employees of downtown businesses.

The city would own the parking lot and lease spaces to businesses, he said. Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution now leases parking spaces on the property from the city.

Lovell said the city shouldn’t sell the building for less than its value just because a developer would need to pay for expensive work to address environmental issues.

“In general, the council is not in much of a mood to give away property,” he said, especially in a year when residents got an 18 percent increase in property taxes.

But Johnston said a parking lot wouldn’t generate revenue for the city for years.

It would cost as much as $90,000 to demolish the buildings, then as much as $150,000 to finish the parking lot and provide lighting, he said. The city would then have to spend an estimated $6,000 a year to maintain the lot.

There appear to be enough votes on the council to demolish the fire station, something Johnston said would be “foolish.”

“It would be very unfortunate that Saco basically ignore buildings that are monuments to our parents and grandparents during a very difficult time in American history,” he said. “We have an obligation to preserve Saco’s history.”

Lovell doesn’t think the building has historic value just because it is a WPA project.

“There is no sense there is a true historic value either to the city, state or nation,” he said.

Johanna Hoffman, president of Saco Spirit and chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Commission, disputes Lovell’s assertion. The building is historically and emotionally significant for the city, she said.

“It’s part of the fabric of the community,” she said.

Hoffman said tearing down the building to create parking would be “infuriating” and the wrong approach to economic development. She is rallying residents to send letters to city councilors and speak at the public hearing Aug. 20.

“It’s as if someone just handed something to the city of Saco on a gold platter,” she said of Taylor’s proposal. “It’s exactly what we’re looking for in terms of economic development.”

 

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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