Brunswick, Bowdoin College mull options after house demolition is halted; traffic plan 'moving forward'

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BRUNSWICK — A historic preservation board’s recent decision to block demolition of an abandoned building on Cleaveland Street has forced stakeholders in a long-awaited intersection improvement plan to consider alternatives, including an outright appeal.

The Village Review Board on July 20 voted 3-2, with one abstention, to deny Bowdoin College’s request to raze 4-6 Cleaveland St. – also known as the Bowker House – to make way for a parking lot.

The decision was foreshadowed by a June 15 meeting where board members tabled the request after expressing concern that demolishing the building would pull another thread from the town’s historic fabric.

The Bowker House has been abandoned and in disrepair for years. Bowdoin purchased the building in 2005, but not before determining that the $1.2 million cost to renovate the property was too steep. 

During both meetings, board members questioned whether Bowdoin had neglected the building – one of just a handful of criteria within the board’s purview.

Bowdoin officials have rejected that assertion. They say the college has spent more than $3 million to renovate the 10 properties it owns in the Federal Street Historic District, which includes the Bowker House.

The house is also a key component in a compromise between the town, Bowdoin and the First Parish Church for a Department of Transportation  improvement plan for the Bath Road-Maine Street intersection. The plan has taken more than two years to evolve.

Representatives of the town and the church on July 20 spoke in favor of the Bowker House demolition.

Town Council Chairwoman Joanne King and Pat Scully, the town attorney, warned the board about the repercussions of denying Bowdoin’s request.

Scully said the board’s action leaves its decision vulnerable to an appeal, in part, he said, because some members based their decision on factors beyond the board’s purview.

Brooks Stoddard, Elizabeth Marr and Jane Chrichton voted with the majority. Chairwoman Emily Swan and Janet Roberts voted to approve Bowdoin’s request. Jeff Pelletier abstained. Laurie Leader was absent.

Town Manager Gary Brown addressed the decision during Monday’s Town Council meeting, saying the Bath Road-Maine Street intersection plan would still move forward. 

Catherine Longley, a Bowdoin vice president, said the college is considering its options, including an appeal. Under the Town Charter, an appeal would go before the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, not the court system.

Brown said it might be possible to avoid the appeal process, which can take time.

During the June 15 meeting, Longley said the college would be willing to give the house to someone willing to move it to another location. The mover, she said, would pay relocation costs.

Although it is within the Federal Street Historic District, the house isn’t on the National Historic Register.

The Maine Historic Preservation Commission has approved the demolition.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]