HDC Hears Pros, Cons of Town’s Plan to Site New Fire Station at 139 The Great Road

March 3, 2022

Advocates and opponents of building a fire station at 139 The Great Road presented clashing scenarios to the Historic District Commission (HDC) at a virtual meeting Wednesday.

The 64,000 square-foot site is on the Annual Town Meeting warrant for purchase. There’s also a companion article to begin the design process. The HDC has jurisdiction concerning demolition of the existing building and features of the new design.

“The HDC always was a critical part of this process, as a valuable thought partner and stakeholder relative to any proposed design,” said Town Manager Sarah Stanton. “I hope there will be a series of conversations.”

Later the commission read a strongly-worded letter of opposition from Don Corey of the Historic Preservation Commission. He said the existing building is an important structure with “architectural and historical significance,” and approval of demolition would be “a complete lack of respect for or interest in preserving the district.”

The building at 139 The Great Road has been owned by Utah State University as a research facility since the 1980s. The university intends to sell the property in the spring.

Alan Long, acting chair, emphasized at Wednesday’s Zoom meeting that “it is really up to the HDC as to whether that building gets demolished.” He added, “We all understand the very pressing need for a new fire station.  If you find a different opinion about the site it’s because we are doing our job preserving buildings.”

Stanton said the town’s position is that the commission should deliberate about demolition with a proposed design for the new structure as the context. “It is our understanding that the HDC never submits demolition permits until there is close to a fully-formed design,” she said.

But resident Walter St. Onge, a former selectman, contended that asking town meeting to purchase the site before the issue of demolition is resolved is “putting the cart way before the horse.”

Carol Amick, a former state senator, spoke for 20 minutes on the historic value of 139 The Great Road as a 19th-century carriage house, part of the Bacon family estate. She asserted that it should remain as “a testament” to owner Jonathan Bacon’s status as an innovator, which she described in detail and added drawings and photographs.

But commission member Karl Winkler shot back that Amick’s primary interest is as an abutter, and she didn’t present any details in an effort to forstall the demolition of a house facing the Town Common years ago. “I’m a little disappointed with the fact that we are not prioritizing the needs of public safety for the town,” he stated.

Winkler later in the meeting declared that as hard as it is to consider removing a historic building, the town has an urgent need. “I, as a member of the Historic District Commission, look forward to taking on the challenge to knit this into The Great Road with the design, and how we will be able to implement this quickly and cost-effectively along the way. That is my direction moving forward.”

There are only four members of the commission involved, as the chair, William Moonan, recused himself from all deliberations to avoid conflict of interest. Moonan, as Amick’s spouse, is an abutter. There are provisions for two alternate members, but both slots are vacant.

Indeed, another member’s spouse offered a comment at the session. Tim Brown, husband of member Karen Kalil-Brown, said town meeting should purchase 139 The Great Road regardless because it’s an excellent value at “a bargain price.” Sal Canciello is the other HDC member.

The Historic District Commission called a special meeting a couple of weeks ago after learning of the plan. Stanton told members then that they weren’t notified earlier because negotiations were taking place in executive session. Wednesday she extended an olive branch: “We regret not coming to the HDC sooner.”

Her presentation included a history of the site search and reasons why the current station at 55 The Great Road is inadequate – especially since any expansion would require demolition of historic houses where people reside.

She detailed site criteria – lot size, travel route, response time – and the need to reset after plans to acquire 175 The Great Road were halted by the arrival of the pandemic. Subsequently, town officials learned of the availability of 139 The Great Road, which would save $6 million just in purchase price, she said.

Once a designer is involved, Stanton said, the firm will “work hand-in-hand” with the HDC. She said the designer will be required to have had experience working in a historic district. Maybe in a year, she said, when design work is complete, the town will apply for a demolition permit. “We want the HDC to see proposed designs and be part of the process as we work our way there.”

Stanton presented slides of a few fire stations designed to conform to historic areas – in Lexington, Waltham, and Brewster. “A lot of thought and consideration goes into what is right for a community,” she said, adding, “but also [we must] be mindful of the need to deliver 21st century fire services. We hope you will not prejudge us before having the opportunity to work with us.”

Fire Chief David Grunes noted that he has been a member of the department for 28 years and he recalls the HDC’s role in past station exterior renovations. “Our intention is to work with the HDC, the neighbors, and the town to be very respectful of the site and build something the town can be proud of to help us protect the community.”

The plan is for a 21,000 square-foot facility, Stanton said, which would accommodate all the department’s equipment. Everything except the ladder truck would have the ability to turn around on the outside apron, she said. In answer to a question from Long, Stanton said a consultant engaged by the town didn’t foresee a major excavation needed to account for change on grade.

Canciello pointed out that the way the lot is configured, “the width of the site is going to control what we see from the street. ” Grunes acknowledged that he envisions four bays facing the street.

“That adds a considerable challenge from a design point of view,” Long observed. “Four big garage doors facing the street in a historic district.” This is an opportunity to be “creative,” Stanton replied.

Stanton said minimizing abutter impact is critical. “It’s an incredibly important part of the design process.” Winkler stated, “We really just need to look at a wide variety of options that allows us to move this forward.”

Amick told the commission that replacement of the carriage house will “erode the district,” and by extension the town. She called for “an open, fair, and transparent process before a final location is chosen.”

Since the location was revealed a few weeks ago, Amick has publicly opposed it, first citing threats to neighbors from light, sound, and chemical contamination, and then alleging through her attorney that the town is in violation of state procurement law.

St. Onge lamented plans to replace an older building with a municipal structure. “The center of town is becoming nothing more than a government complex with very little retail or other use – a bunch of government buildings and a couple of banks and a gas station. The town needs to change that.” He also dismissed the concept of equalizing response time as something from the “19th-century,” implying that a wider range of sites could be considered for a station that he said is essential.

Other speakers were Amy Lloyd, Planning Board member, who predicted that a private developer will maximize the residential potential of the site if the town doesn’t acquire it, and Talal Ali Ahmad, owner of the professional building at 143 The Great Road, who expressed concern.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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Ken Larson
March 5, 2022 1:09 pm

The building at 139 The Great Road is greatly changed from its origins. Its appearance and function as a carriage house is long gone. It is impossible to preserve what is no longer exists.

The removal of the building would not be an historic loss to the town. To replace it with a building with phony “Colonial” design features would be an horrendous blow. The new facility need not be cartoonish. It does need to be architecturally appropriate to Bedford’s clearly New England sensibilities. There are plenty of examples of good design from, say, between the 1860’s and 1920’s in town. Let’s be sure to emulate a design language that says “Classic Firehouse” rather than “Cheesy Fire McMansion”.

The great savings on appropriating this, rather than other properties, could be best used in thoughtful design of a building with a classic fascade fronting a 21st century public safety facility.

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