Some Commission Members Still Skeptical about Firehouse Site

September 15, 2023
One of the slides from the June 7, 2023, fire station project team meeting with the Historic District Commission showing 139 Great Rd site in the Historic District. Source: bedfordma.gov

The Bedford Historic District Commission’s affirmation of plans for a fire station at 139 The Great Rd. is far from a slam dunk.

The location is in the Bedford Center Historic District, and any additional or altered building exteriors must be approved by the commission. That means not only demolition of the existing structure on the site, but also construction of a fire station.

The Fire Station Building Committee has been updating the commission as plans unfold, and on Sept. 6, presented building placement options outlined by architect Sean Schmigle of the firm Kaestle Boos Associates. 

The designer from the firm Kaestle Boos & Associates offered three options for the site. The apparatus bay’s doors would face the rear according to the first choice. The apparatus bay’s doors faces The Great Road in the other two; the only difference in the second and third option is what side of the building houses a separate ambulance entrance.

On Wednesday, the two commission members who were unable to attend last week’s discussion, Alan Long and Salvatore Canciello, convened with their colleagues to learn what they missed. 

“A huge amount of the stuff we have been talking about is not really our purview,” Long told the commission. “Our purview is what this looks like from the street relative to adjacent buildings.  We can listen to the Building Committee and architects and the Fire Department talking about function, but our decision shouldn’t be based on that primarily.”

A highlight of last week’s commission meeting was Acting Fire Chief Paul Sheehan’s endorsement of the option that allows direct access by firefighting vehicles to the street. His reasons were not only response time but also community visibility. But on Wednesday, Long stated, “What the chief had to say is completely irrelevant to our conversation.”

Two of the layout options presented to the Fire Station Building Committee by architects Kaestle Boos & Associates. Source: bedfordma.gov

Canciello, an architect, said the panel needs to consider more than a floor plan. “It has to be seen. I want to see what it looks like all together.”

Member Karen Kalil-Brown, who was at last week’s presentation, said by planning a fire station at 139 The Great Road, “We are trying to put a square peg into a round hole… What if we make a mess turning and twisting to make something fit?” She added that by altering the parcel, “We really are gutting the historical nature of this property, period.” 

Long concurred, saying, “The property has to be hugely degraded. We will change the character if this is approved.” 

Canciello, however, pointed out that “we have to determine if that change is appropriate. That’s our charge.” He acknowledged, “It’s a tough site. They did a good job giving us three options.”

Member Karl Winkler has said since the process began that his top priority is fulfilling a public safety need. On Wednesday, he said that the proposal is “a great opportunity to build a structure that has the bays of a fire station with a tower and have it integrated in the community that looks like it has been there for 50 years. We can integrate something that does look timeless.” He also said the commission should require a detailed written plan for trees.

His colleague Jennifer McClain also took what she called a “constructive” approach, referencing attempts to “round the peg.” She pointed out that “this is a process. We will get more information. We will get more feedback.”

When members brought up details such as snow storage, she reminded, “There’s a building committee that’s going to look at things like that.”

Canciello pointed out that the entire historic district was included in the National Register of Historic Places “based on how the homes all contributed together to a feel. Does this building fit in and maintain that character and feel? Is this an appropriate intervention that doesn’t deteriorate the value of the historic district as a whole?”

At one point Canciello said, “I think Kaestle Boos can make bays that look nice, garage doors that look nice.”

Winkler also said, “We need to have in writing the size and scale of trees” that will replace those lost during construction.

Among the commission’s concerns on Wednesday were:

  • Grading. The site is sloped, west to east and to a lesser degree south to north. With the garage bays fronted by a paved apron, “you are going to be taking up a lot of material. I suspect they want the whole thing to be flat.” Canciello said, “I would expect to see a 3-D model so we can understand exactly the relationship with adjacent buildings.”
  • Utility poles and wires in front of the site. In answer to Canciello’s question, McClain said the architect is talking with Eversource. Kalil-Brown asked, “How much is it going to cost to move the utilities? What expense does that add to the town?”
  • The front of the fire station. Canciello was concerned about the size of the paved apron in front of the garage bays, and whether there is a way to add grass and reduce pavement. McClain pointed out that the apron will negate the need for apparatus to back onto the site, stopping traffic in the process. Also, Canciello said there should be a public entrance in the front regardless of the option. Winkler noted that would also necessitate nearby parking for the disabled. 
  • Stormwater management. “This could take away half of the parking,” Canciello said. “There’s a significant area needed. I would like to understand the strategy.”
  • Parking spaces. Long said the proposed 32 to 34 spaces “seems like a huge number. It impacts runoff and wetland considerations.”

McClain said, “These are concerns, these are questions.” As they are addressed, “We can be surprised at people’s creativity.”

One of the concerns with the option that places the apparatus bays at the rear of the property is the impact of headlights on adjacent residences. Winkler said a planned prefabricated storage building could be integrated into screening.

Regardless of the option selected, “if we have to use this site – any way we can minimize the impact of what goes on in a fire station to adjacent properties is good,” Long said, such as use of berms fencing, buildings, and landscaping.

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September 17, 2023 11:20 am

The Sunday Review headline is instructive. The HDC “affirmation” of the plans to locate a massive industrial building at the gateway to Bedford’s historic Center, changing the streetscape forever, was never a “slam dunk”. Why that should be a surprise deserves close attention. The underlying problems with the project will be examined this week on Save Our Block.

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