Speculation builds about building swap between Brunswick, Bowdoin college

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BRUNSWICK — A long-rumored proposal to swap Bowdoin College’s McLellan Building for the soon-to-close Longfellow School could result in a new municipal headquarters, and potentially factor into the town’s police station site search.

The idea of a swap surfaced two years ago when a Town Council subcommittee explored options to solve its facilities issues. Rumblings about an imminent proposal have recently increased as the town considers two potential sites for a police station.

One site is at the southeast corner of Stanwood and Pleasant streets. The other, while not yet confirmed, is widely believed to be at the corner of Union and Weymouth. The Brunswick Development Corp., a town agency, last year purchased property there.

That the corner could be considered as the new home of the Brunswick Police Department has given rise to speculation about a potential town takeover of the nearby McLellan Building.

Town and Bowdoin College officials have refused to reveal details, but comments from both parties suggest a proposal may be imminent.

“There’s no concrete proposal yet,” said Catherine Longley, a vice president at Bowdoin. “If we reach one, we’ll be willing to share it in public.”

Town Manager Gary Brown echoed Longley’s remarks, adding that discussions about the rumored swap will be aired when the council officially reveals potential police station sites.

The swap idea came forward two years ago, when the council subcommittee reviewed moving municipal offices into Hawthorne or Longfellow School. The two elementary schools are slated to close when the Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School on McKeen Street opens in 2011.

Although cost and location eventually eliminated the schools from consideration, committee members said Bowdoin had expressed interest in acquiring Longfellow, which is embedded in its campus.

Soon thereafter, a potential swap of Longfellow and Bowdoin’s McLellan Building surfaced.

At a glance, McLellan, at 85 Union St., appears to be part of Maine Street Station. The town is a partner in the joint development project. In addition to an investment of over $5 million, Maine Street Station features a strong municipal presence: the town leases space at the train station and visitor’s center, and meeting space. 

At 27,000 square feet, McLellan would seem too large to become municipal offices. Combined, the town office and police station on Federal Street total 15,000 square feet.

However, McLellan could house meeting space once the town’s five-year lease with Bowdoin at Maine Street Station expires. Additionally, if the Weymouth-Union site becomes the new police headquarters, the two properties could create a municipal campus.

There are several issues that could complicate a McLellan-Longfellow swap. Perhaps most significant is price. According to the town Assessor’s Office, the McLellan property is valued at $3.7 million, while Longfellow is valued at $2.4 million.

Additionally, the town doesn’t yet own Longfellow. It’s currently the property of the School Department, which is facing unprecedented changes and uncertain enrollment.

Assistant Superintendent Greg Bartlett said this week that a Longfellow-McLellan deal remains “rumor and speculation.”

“To my knowledge, there is nothing definitive other than (Longfellow) is closing,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett added that surrendering Longfellow to the town would come after the School Board weighs effects of scheduled renovations to its other elementary schools, Jordan Acres and Coffin. The improvements, included in the town’s Capital Improvement Program, could force the district to temporarily use Longfellow, he said.

“But that’s all speculative,” he said. “It’s probably premature for any of that discussion to take place. A decision about Longfellow and its use will be up to the School Board.”

It’s also unclear how a potential McLellan-Longfellow swap will affect the Town Council as it considers the two sites for the police station.

The Stanwood-Pleasant location might appeal to the majority because it would establish a municipal presence at a downtown gateway. 

It would also effectively eliminate the possibility of a twice-proposed, twice-denied Walgreens store on the property. Brown, the town manager, this week confirmed that someone affiliated with the previous Walgreens proposal had been inquiring about the corner since January – about the same time two new town councilors were sworn in.

The council would have to authorize a zoning amendment to allow Walgreens to build on the corner. Such an amendment could be unlikely if the council prefers the location for a police station, or if it suspects the developer is attempting to outbid the town.

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