April 08, 2020

City mulls fate of riverside buildings’ > Demolition requires six-month wait

BANGOR — Those old brick buildings between State Street and the Penobscot River must be good for something, but what? For the past couple of decades, that’s been the tough question whenever the Waterworks is discussed.

Room for more parking might make the riverside complex more attractive to a developer, officials believe, and to that end the city wants to pursue getting the OK for demolition of three of the newer buildings on site — the wood-frame engineer’s house and garage, and the brick filter house.

The topic will be discussed when the community and economic development committee meets at 5 p.m. today at City Hall.

There’s good reason for starting the process now. The city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance mandates a six-month waiting period in getting a certificate of appropriateness from the local Historic Preservation Committee before demolishing historic properties.

By seeking the certificate now, the city could eliminate or shorten a delay if a good proposal does come along and room for parking is needed. If a developer decided to keep all the buildings, that would be fine, too.

No proposals are on the table, according to Community and Economic Development Director Rodney McKay, although there have been discussions with a few interested parties.

The question of demolishing any of the 10 structures on the 1.8-acre site will bring to many people’s minds the controversy over a similar question four years ago.

Not knowing how much of the construction might need to go, then-director Ken Gibb made the case for giving the city a certificate of appropriateness to demolish any or all of the buildings. The premise was that it just was not economically feasible to rehabilitate the properties.

The Historic Preservation Commission voted 5-0 in February 1994 against the city’s request. Three months later, the Zoning Board of Appeals voted 3-2 to uphold the commission’s decision.

McKay said Tuesday that he was “not going to try to make a case” for demolishing buildings, but wanted to get some guidance about what was possible for the site.

“I’m not in favor of tearing down any more buildings than necessary,” he emphasized, adding that it might turn out to be necessary to “tear down one or two in order to save the remainder.”

It would be a good idea to get the six-month process under way, McKay said. “To a developer, time is money.”

Ideas for re-using the site always pop up when the question of demolition is discussed, he said, but so far those ideas have not worked out. “Essentially, the property has been offered for sale or development for over two decades.”

The wooden engineer’s house and the brick filter house, the two structures closest to State Street, are not part of the original construction of the Waterworks in 1875. The Waterworks was built to give citizens clear water from the Penobscot River, a necessity because city wells had been contaminated by human waste.

Built first were the wheel house — visible at the corner of the filter house — the old pump house, eventually the electric light station, and the hose house. The light station generated power for city buildings and streetlights.

The three predate even the Thomas Hill Standpipe, erected in back of Ohio Street in 1897.

In 1904, 540 cases of waterborne typhoid fever were diagnosed in the city, so the filter house was built in 1907 to provide cleaner water. A coagulation basin and aeration house were also added for the same reason.

The dam was turned over to the city after Floods Pond in Otis became the city’s water supply in 1959. The last use of the buildings may have been office space upstairs in the light station in the ’60s.

The complex also contains a newer pump house and wheelhouse, and a long gatehouse next to the river. The slate-roofed masonry buildings total 21,618 square feet.

In late 1995, a Yarmouth developer had planned to put a Muddy Rudder restaurant on the property, but did not because re-doing the railroad signal to allow public access to the site would have been too expensive.

In March 1996, the city received two proposals for redevelopment — one from the Sea Dog Brewing Co. for a brewery, and one from Gary LaBrecque of Waterville and William Meucci of Bangor, who planned to use the site for office and retail space.

The City Council rejected the LaBrecque-Meucci proposal because of the amount of funding the pair requested from the city. The door was left open for the Sea Dog proposal, but the company did not proceed with those plans.

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