SOUTH PORTLAND — A Topsham development company must win a commercial zoning change and woo neighbors and state transportation officials before it can close a deal to buy the former National Guard armory at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge.

City Manager Jim Gailey signed a contract Thursday to sell the high-profile, often-vacant building to Priority Real Estate Group. The buyer wants to convert the Art Deco-style front section of the armory into a convenience store and cafe and install a gas station at the rear of the property at 682 Broadway.

Under the purchase-and-sale agreement, Priority would pay $700,000 for the building and about 2.3 acres – $50,000 more than the city paid for it eight years ago. Priority has yet to submit formal development plans – its consultants are expected to meet with city planners this coming week – but the firm’s proposal is already getting mixed reviews from residents.

While some people praise the city’s efforts to preserve a local landmark and say the Millcreek shopping area needs a gas station, others worry about potential traffic impacts at an already busy intersection and question whether the armory deserves a more imaginative proposal.

“I like the idea of having a gas station in the area – we haven’t had one for a while – but I was hoping that it could be used for something for the community, like basketball or something like that,” said Dan Nee, who has lived near the armory for more than 30 years.

The last gas station in the area, which was located across from the Central Fire Station next door to the armory, closed during construction of the Casco Bay Bridge, which opened in 1997.

“What a huge disappointment and a horrible spot for a gas station,” said Jeff Woodbury, an artist who lives and works in South Portland. “I get it from a taxpayer’s perspective. Get rid of it and get it on the tax rolls. But it has pretty terrible access for a high-traffic business and it’s such a pedestrian use for a cool building, a chunk of history and the first thing you see coming off the bridge.”

Woodbury said the building might be better suited for an indoor skate park or as a work space for creative people, such as boatbuilders, artists and musicians.

A PLACE IN PERIL

Gailey said he’s heard both sides of the argument, but he believes Priority’s proposal meets the city’s overall goal to sell the property for a suitable use that preserves a local landmark. He also believes it would serve existing drive-by traffic rather than attract more vehicles to the area and it would fill the need for a gas station in the city’s central commercial area.

“The traffic’s already in the area,” Gailey said. “We’re trying to preserve an important building the best we can. They can’t save all of it, but they’re saving the most visible part of it.”

Built in 1941, the armory contains just over 37,000 square feet, Gailey said. Priority plans to tear down a military drill hall that’s about 11,000 square feet and about 11,000 square feet of garage space, both of which were added to the rear of the building at later dates.

The developers are expected to preserve any architecturally significant features, including large military-themed medallions on the building’s exterior, Gailey said.

“It’s extraordinarily positive that the city and the buyer have come to an agreement that preserves the facade of the building,” said Kate Lewis, development director of Greater Portland Landmarks, which listed the armory among several important “Places in Peril” in 2012.

Residents will have several opportunities to weigh in on the proposal, including public hearings before the Planning Board and City Council, and community forums to be hosted by the developers.

“We’ve been very clear about them being willing to work with the neighborhood and they are willing. We want the developers to be good neighbors,” said Gailey, who was authorized by the council to market and sell the armory.

Priority must seek a zoning change from single-family residential to commercial, which the Planning Board would review and vote on a recommendation to the council. Gailey said all of the potential buyers who looked at the armory would have needed a commercial zone change.

MINIMIZING IMPACTS

Priority’s proposal also needs site plan approval from the Planning Board and the Maine Department of Transportation. The developers will be expected to minimize outdoor lighting, sound and other impacts on neighbors, and they’ve already started a traffic study that would be part of the plan, Gailey said.

An average of 14,550 vehicles travels that section of Broadway each day, according to the MDOT. The department would review Priority’s traffic study and likely require turning lanes or other measures to manage vehicle access to and from the site, said Tim Soucie, an MDOT engineer.

The developer’s desire to put a gas station at a busy intersection wouldn’t automatically rule out MDOT approval.

“That’s usually where they want to be,” Soucie said.

Vehicles would access the site via Armory Street, which runs along the right side of the building, and Hanson Street, which runs along the left side of the building and would require the addition of a right-turning lane, Gailey said. There would be no vehicle access from Anthoine Street, he said.

Priority has six months to get all necessary permits, plus 60 days to close the sale, but the council may grant extensions, Gailey said.

Jim Howard, Priority’s president, didn’t respond Friday to a call for comment about his company’s plans for the property.

Gailey said the developers have indicated that they intend to lease the property to Maine companies, but there’s nothing in the purchase-and-sale agreement that requires them to do so. “They have free rein,” he said.

Priority has built, owns or manages more than $100 million in commercial properties, including professional and medical offices, educational facilities, and retail, manufacturing and industrial space, according to the firm’s website.

The company has worked extensively with state and local officials across Maine and specializes in site location, building design, project permitting, construction and budget management, and community relations.

The armory has been mostly empty and without heat or hot water since the state closed the building in 1994, Gailey said. The city paid $650,000 for the property in 2006 and leased it for $550 per month to Fore River Sound Stage from mid-2011 until last spring.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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