A small group of buildings on Forest Avenue that figured in the history of Portland’s off-peninsula development soon could fall to the wrecking ball to make way for a new, suburban-style pharmacy.

The occupants include Palmer Spring Co., which has been in business for over 150 years making mechanical springs for all modes of transportation – first for horse-drawn carriages that settled the West, then trolleys and, finally, automobiles. It has been in the current location for more than 80 years.

Nearby, David Munster’s TV Sales and Service is a fourth-generation business, which began as an all-purpose radio shop on Munjoy Hill.

Another building is occupied by Forest Gardens bar, a popular watering hole for locals in the Oakdale and Back Cove neighborhoods for about 80 years.

Now, a developer is looking to tear down these buildings and two others to make way for a new CVS Pharmacy.

City officials are considering whether three of the five buildings located between 351 and 379 Forest Ave. should be designated as historic and spared the wrecking ball. The city’s Historic Preservation Board meets Wednesday to conduct a preliminary review about whether the Palmer Spring building at 351-355 Forest Ave., the Forest Garden/David Munster building at 371-373 and the Creative Trails building at 369 should be protected under the city’s Historic Preservation ordinance.

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A January 10, 1947 Press Herald photograph shows the Palmer Spring Company at 355 Forest Avenue behind dogsledder Perry Greene of Waldoboro. The color photograph of the same scene was captured in December 2013. Historic photo courtesy of the Portland Public Library Special Collections & Archives; 2013 photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

The review was scheduled after the city received a request to tear down those buildings, plus 365 and 375 Forest Ave., to make way for the pharmacy.

David Munster said he has started looking for a new location for his business, which he hopes to hand off to his son. However, new spaces that he can afford are getting harder to come by, especially those that have the visibility of Forest Avenue.

“My son is the fourth generation – I’d like to see it keep going and stay here,” said Munster, 63, noting that his business evolved from Maine Radio, which opened on Munjoy Hill in the 1930s.

Palmer Spring owns its lot on Forest Avenue and the company’s president, David Weeks, owns two other properties targeted for destruction. Weeks didn’t respond to several requests for comment Monday, nor did Mike Kaplan, who owns the Forest Gardens building and 375 Forest Ave., which used to be a tanning business.

The customers and management at Forest Gardens declined to be interviewed for this story, although one man sipping a Miller Lite at the bar joked that he would stop the wrecking ball if the city doesn’t. “Over my dead body!” he said.

All five properties total about 1.3 acres, according to city tax documents.

Sandra Guay, a Biddeford attorney representing CVS, said in a Nov. 20 memo to the board that only the Palmer Spring building could be considered historic, but noted that it had been altered throughout the years.

759795-ProposCVSForestAve01“The structure is therefore no longer preserved in its original state and as such, no longer maintains its original architectural historical significance,” wrote Guay, who did not return a call seeking comment Monday. She also raised the possibility that CVS may claim economic hardship if the historic designation is ultimately approved by the City Council. A finding of economic hardship can exempt a property owner from historic restrictions.

CVS currently has five locations in Portland, including one less than half a mile away at 449 Forest Ave.

Urban and Planning Development Director Jeff Levine said developers are beginning to show an interest in portions of Forest Avenue, which the city studied in depth in 2011.

Part of that study – called Transforming Forest Avenue – looked at historic buildings and included a vision for what type of development should occur there. The city already has amended zoning along the heavily traveled transportation corridor to encourage higher-density, mixed-use developments, rather than suburban-style stores with large parking lots.

Growing interest in redeveloping this area prompted Greater Portland Landmarks, a preservation group that formed in 1964 after the demolition of Union Station, to commission a study last summer of Forest Avenue from Interstate 295 to Woodfords Corner, as well as Stevens Avenue from Morrill’s Corner to Woodford Street.

Hilary Bassett, the group’s executive director, said that the one-mile stretch of Forest Avenue was home to many of the first businesses that serviced and sold automobiles.

“We are very supportive of having protections for those buildings,” Bassett said. “Each building has an individual story behind it. To have them go for parking would be a real lost opportunity.”

Built in the early 19th century, Forest Avenue was one of the first roads built off-peninsula. It emerged as the primary route to the lakes and mountains to the west, and eventually New Hampshire and Vermont. It was used by farmers to bring their produce into the city.

By the mid-19th century, the Back Cove area became more suburban, and development accelerated with the arrival of horse carts, electric trolleys and, later, the automobile. Morrill’s and Woodfords corners were among the city’s earliest passenger hubs.

Before becoming the Palmer Spring building, 351-355 Forest Ave. was built in 1920 as the L.C. Gilson Auto Company. Palmer Spring, which was established in 1849, prompting the company to claim that it is the oldest spring company in the U.S., has had a presence in the building since 1932. It opened a service station and spring manufacturing operation in 1949. It continues to operate as a service garage and a blacksmith.

Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation manager, said staff members review all demolition requests. While most requests to tear down buildings outside of historic districts are typically approved, she said the Greater Portland Landmarks survey provides a valuable context about the evolution of Forest Avenue and the buildings there.

Andrews said she has not drafted a recommendation for the board. She hopes a clear consensus will emerge during the board’s workshop Wednesday.

While designation of a historic district must be reviewed by the Planning Board, Andrews said nominations of specific properties would proceed directly to the council for a final decision.


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