SOUTH PORTLAND – South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey rarely cites the press at public meetings, but during a council workshop Monday, he could not resist using a newspaper article to make a point. That story, he noted, called the city’s public works garage on O’Neil Street a “state-of-the-art facility.”
The kicker? That article was written in 1930.
“The site is now past its prime, to say the least,” said Gailey, adding that employees today “work in substandard conditions,” with several buildings at the 5-acre facility condemned by the city’s insurance agent.
In hopes of advancing state-of-the-art into the 21st century, the City Council is looking to borrow as much as $10 million to begin construction next spring on a new public works garage. That would allow the city to shutter the O’Neil Street site, which has become bound tightly on all four sides by residential neighborhoods. The only question is whether voters will approve a bond so soon after taking on $41.5 million in new debt to rebuild the high school.
“To me, I see where we are now a money pit,” said Mayor Patti Smith. “As a taxpayer, every time we appropriate funds for a snow plow or a truck or a $500,000 bus, I want to feel like they have a good home to live in, so we can really maximize dollar value.”
In December, the council appropriated $148,200 to have Westbrook civil-engineering firm Sebago Technics study the possibility of building a new complex off Highland Avenue, where the Recycling and Bulk Waste Transfer Station now sits, combining Public Works, Parks & Recreation and Public Transportation departments under one roof.
The first draft of that plan, unveiled to the council in the workshop session Monday, calls on the city’s fleet of 72 trucks and buses to be housed in a 65,000-square-foot storage building with radiant heat built into the floor and a drainage system to wick snowmelt from the “expansive,” flat roof.
Also on tap is a 23,000-square-foot, seven-bay maintenance garage with 9,400 square feet of storage space, a 9,300-square-foot administrative office, and 12,850 square feet of “under cover” storage for small equipment and other items now left out in all weather.
The building would house 67 employees from the three departments.
“All of the people who put a good face on the city will work out of this building,” said Gailey.
Although Sebago officials said it’s too soon to serve up a cost estimate, the council has regularly volleyed a $10 million figure. The good news, said Sebago senior project manager Dan Riley, is that recent tests show gravel and bedrock below the Highland Avenue site, not marine clay, cutting foundation costs considerably from what was once feared.
“We hope to fine-tune the numbers in the next month, in anticipation of a good, strong dialogue about this facility and whether the City Council would be amenable to moving it to a bond [vote] this November,” said Gailey.
However, to avoid running up fees for a project that might not pass voter muster, final plans will not be drawn up until after the bond vote, said Gailey.
In December, councilors Gerard Jalbert and Rosemarie De Angelis said they were “not yet sold” on the need for a new public works garage. However, at Monday’s meeting, all seven councilors appeared to favor the 16-acre development, with many heads nodding along to Maxine Beecher’s assertion that the facility is “one of our greatest needs in the city.”
“To be responsible, we need to get a handle on this and move it forward,” said Beecher.
“It’s the No. 1 priority of all of ours,” said Gailey, reflecting the mood among City Hall staffers.
Still, councilors are well aware the proposal is no slam dunk. In May 2003, South Portland voters turned down a council request to borrow $4.3 million to rehabilitate the old Durastone building on Wallace Avenue. That idea failed by just 27 votes.
Now, some councilors wonder aloud if taxpayers are willing to shoulder a project nearly three times the one previously rejected at a time when the first of many $3 million annual payments is set to come due on $41.5 million borrowed to renovate the high school.
“High schools are sexy,” said De Angelis. “But public works garages, not so much.”
De Angelis observed that while parents can understand a leaky classroom ceiling, something as “utilitarian” as truck storage plays to “a different audience,” and one potentially less motivated to get out the vote. Like others on the council, she appeared to fret over a possible 1-2 knockout blow of tax fatigue and voter apathy.
“We on the council are a captive audience,” she said, “but what is the marketing strategy to convince residents that we ought to bond $10 million?”
According to Sebago vice president Owen McCullough, much of the value is intrinsic in nature. While he is working with South Portland Finance Director Greg L’Heureux to quantify the exact value of the city’s fleet and the amount to be saved by extending vehicle life, other factors, like the efficiency of having three similar departments on one site, are harder to nail down.
Voters also may respond to the separation of industrial-sized work from residential areas. Neighbors of the O’Neil Street facility will undoubtedly be happy to see it go, said McCullough, but that does not mean Highland Avenue residents will inherit their headache. Included in the Sebago study are plans to build a new, 2,500-foot-long road skirting the capped landfill behind the development site to Duck Pond Road, by the Maine Energy plant. That will give plow trucks a more direct route to the western part of the city, while keeping most heavy equipment traffic off Highland Avenue.
Meanwhile, Councilor Tom Blake noted other opportunities. While it will clearly cost money to demolish the O’Neil Street complex – fees that could include a “brownfield” cleanup, depending on what contaminants have leeched into the soil there during the last 82 years – the city could become a developer, subdividing and selling off as many as “12 to 16” building lots. That, said Blake, could mitigate some of the pain in the pocketbook from the move.
However, Blake also raised the closest thing to a black cloud over the project. The proposed site bounds a 49-acre wetland mitigation zone, he said, including an environmentally sensitive area created as a replacement to wetlands destroyed by the construction of Jetport Plaza Road. Care should be taken to minimize the impact of the development on those lands, as well as on two adjacent ponds, he said. Although artificial bodies made from excavation to build area railroad lines during World War II, those ponds now host a variety of life, he said.
Blake called on the use of so-called “pervious pavement,” designed to absorb stormwater runoff.
“I would hate to see that entire area blacktopped,” he said.
Also, while the new complex would include a swap shop – a longtime pet project of Blake’s – he questioned the need to totally renovate the transfer station, while also suggesting the new access lane to Duck Pond Road should be open to public use.
“I like the project a lot, but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered by September or October, because the public is going to ask,” he said.
Sebago will continue to refine the transportation hub plan through the summer, in conjunction with its project partners, CSW Architects, Haley & Aldrich Engineers and CONESTCO construction.