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Brunswick historic board questions Bowdoin house demo

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Brunswick historic board questions Bowdoin house demo

BRUNSWICK — The town's Village Review Board has delayed approval of Bowdoin College's plan to demolish a house on Cleaveland Street to make way for a parking lot.

The proposal would create about 20 parking spaces at 4-6 Cleaveland St., a double lot purchased by Bowdoin in 2005. The vacant two-story building there is included in the Federal Street Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The proposed parking lot is also part of a Maine Department of Transportation project to upgrade the high-crash intersections adjacent to the First Parish Church on Cleaveland Street.

The DOT project is the result of  long-fought compromise among stakeholders, including the church, Bowdoin and the town, which had been negotiating for over 18 months.

But during its June 15 meeting, the Village Review Board expressed concerns over the demolition of the Cleavland Street building, which could become a parking lot to replace the estimated 20 on-street parking spaces that will be lost in the DOT plan.

Bowdoin officials said the lot would be used by the college, as well as the church.

During the 90-minute review, several board members questioned whether razing the building was necessary to replace parking lost elsewhere, and if Bowdoin had neglected the structure. Both issues could be justification for the board to deny Bowdoin a Certificate of Appropriateness, the penultimate step for demolition.

"It seems strange in this day that we're taking down buildings for parking lots," said board member Brooks Stoddard, who questioned how extensively Bowdoin had explored other alternatives.

"This is still a significant building," Stoddard said. "It's taking down will be an erosion of Cleaveland Street and the area."

Several board members appeared to share Stoddard's concern, as did Tricia Welsch, a Cleaveland Street resident.

Welsch, a professor at Bowdoin, said she supported the DOT traffic plan. However, she wasn't convinced the college's proposal was borne from the compromise.

"I've been hearing (it was going to be a) parking lot ever since I've been living there," Welsch said.

Bowdoin officials claim they considered renovating the property to create office space. But Catherine Longley, a vice president at Bowdoin, said the renovation would've been cost prohibitive. Longley pointed to Bowdoin's recent investment of over $3 million in about 10 properties it owns in the Federal Street Historic District.

"We have thought hard about this property," Longley said. "We do not like to tear down historic buildings."

Don Borkowski, Bowdoin's director of capital projects, also rejected the idea that the building simply required aesthetic upgrades. 

"It needs a total-gut rehabilitation," he said. "The entire electric system is shot. It was shot the day we bought it."

Borkowski said converting the building into office space would've cost about $1.2 million.

"We simply don't have the money to renovate it," Longley said.

Stoddard, and Chairwoman Emily Swan, questioned whether Bowdoin had attempted to preserve the building.

"To the passerby, it looks a heck of a lot worse since (the college bought it)," Swan said.

"If you want to get rid of a building, you let it go," Stoddard added.

Last week, Longley told the Village Review Board that the college would make 80 percent of the building available for salvage. It would also allow an interested party to take the building and move it elsewhere.

Sue Chatham, representing the church, supported Bowdoin's application, at one point saying First Parish had previously considered purchasing 4-6 Cleaveland St. to create a parking lot.

"It's an effective solution for that corner," Chatham said.

The board ultimately decided to table until July 20 its decision on the demolition.

Several members hoped Bowdoin would return with an alternative to razing the building. Longley wasn't confident Bowdoin could produce other options.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net