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City Hall, public works top facility priorities in South Portland

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City Hall, public works top facility priorities in South Portland

SOUTH PORTLAND — A new public works building and City Hall are among the City Council's top priorities for major facility improvements.

After two years of discussing major capital priorities, the council got down to the business of formally ranking them Monday night in a special workshop.

Building a new public works and transportation facility, estimated to cost $8.5 million, near the Highland Avenue transfer station ranked first on the council's list. A new City Hall, which was not included in many of the previous discussions, ranked a close second.

Other priorities included street paving, open space and parks, library renovations and a municipal swimming pool.

While the public works facility was the top priority, the council spent most of its time discussing a proposal to buy a new office building at 100 Waterman Drive for use as City Hall.

Councilors toured the 32,000-square-foot building, built by Andrew Ingalls of CBRE/The Boulos Co., on May 27. On Monday they agreed the vacant, four-story building with long views of the Fore River would make a beautiful City Hall, but they differed on whether a move would be responsible.

"I think we'd be tarred and feathered to move into Waterman Drive at this time," said Councilor Tom Blake, who said he would like this city to wait for Mahoney Middle School to become available. "I would like to get (Waterman Drive) off the table, right now."

City Manager Jim Gailey presented councilors with a rough draft of how the city would use the Waterman Drive building, which would give the city more than 16,500 square feet of space, compared to the more than 12,700 square feet it has now. 

School Department offices were not included in the draft.

Gailey also gave councilors a February 2009 facility assessment of the existing City Hall, which was built in 1898 and expanded in the 1970s. The assessment, conducted by former city employee Jack Roberts, indicates the walls are "full of mold and mildew," the floors have asbestos tiles and the roof leaks.

Meanwhile, Gailey presented councilors with a list of repairs performed since December 2007, at a cost of more than $44,000. Another $90,000 in utility costs in the current budget were also included, even though it was agreed that some of those costs would exist if City Hall were moved.

Councilor Linda Boudeau said the city should have an opportunity to move into a building that, while not certified, meets energy efficient standards outlined by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

"We (would be) turning our back right now to a building that would put us as a leader in the very thing we are trying to promote," Boudreau said. "I would beg us not to push this aside."

The council discussion was cut short, since it took place prior to a regularly scheduled business meeting, which was delayed 20 minutes. But councilors generally agreed that any discussion to move City Hall to 100 Waterman Drive should take place within the context of all possible options, including constructing a new building behind the existing one and retrofitting Mahoney Middle School, when and if the School Department leaves.

The majority of councilors, however, wanted to expedite that discussion.

"We're pushed because this is an opportunity that is here now and might not be in six months," Boudreau said. "We have an obligation to residents to tell our story and build a case for or against this building."

Some residents, however, cautioned the council against acting hastily.

Tanner Street resident Gary Crosby said he deals with commercial real estate for a living and said that the commercial market is unlike the resident market.

"There are always other opportunities," Crosby said.

Ingalls' building was listed for $6.4 million when it was first offered to the council in 2008. But last month he said he would be willing to sell it to the city for cost – $4.8 million.

Colchester Drive resident Albert DiMillo suggested the council would get a better deal if it waits.

"Maybe in four months it will foreclose and you can get it for $2 million," DiMillo said.

Mussey Street resident Gary Lewis noted how residents in Knightville-Mill Creek opposed a zoning amendment granted by the council that allowed the four-story development, rather than a smaller, three-story building.

He was also suspicious that the council was interested in moving into a building that was originally touted as way to increase the city's tax base and revitalize the Waterfront Market.

"From where I'm sitting now, something smells fishy about this whole process," Lewis said. "Right now, it doesn't sit well with me and the people I have spoken with."

When Lewis asked the councilors whether they understood why residents were skeptical about the city's interest in the building, Mayor Tom Coward replied, "only to a conspiracy theorist."

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, who actively opposed the zone change as a resident, was among those questioning the timing of the city's interest.

"It's not our job to jump in as the savior for that building," she said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net