HDC Agrees to New Hearing on Revised Fire Station Plan

February 8, 2024
The HDC has agreed to schedule a public hearing on the fate of a potential fire station at 139 The Great Road on Feb. 21. Image: BedfordTV

The fire station proposed for 139 The Great Road is on life support. A hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 21 will determine whether the Historic District Commission (HDC) pulls the plug or resuscitates.

A consensus of the HDC on Wednesday agreed to schedule the public hearing after architect Sean Schmigle presented revisions to the design. 

The three members of the HDC who voted to deny certificates of appropriateness, in effect shutting down the project, explained their opposition at Wednesday’s meeting. Those positions, based on the language of the legislation that created the historic district, will have to be reconciled with the revised design for the project to survive.

The HDC has jurisdiction over the external appearance of buildings and grounds in the district, which extends along both sides of The Great Road between Bacon Road/Hillside Avenue and the fork of North and Carlisle roads.

Supermajorities of Town Meeting have approved financing for the purchase of the site and design of the station with the knowledge that the HDC could deny permission to demolish the existing building at 139 The Great Road and replace it with a firehouse.

If the denial is reversed, there would still be time to include an article for financing construction on the March Annual Town Meeting warrant.

“Our hope here is [that] you will tell us if this breathes new life into the project,” Town Manager Matt Hanson told the HDC on Wednesday. He predicted that Schmigle “will work feverishly on design updates” leading to the next hearing.

“This is headed in the right direction,” HDC member Alan Long said. But he added he is “still distressed” about the new building’s relative size, impermeable surface, and a separate pre-fabricated storage building. The revised design, Long said, “resolves some of the issues.” 

Commission Chair Karen Kalil-Brown said, “We’re still going to have to tear the house down.”

Member Sal Canciello said, “It’s a question of how much improvement do we need so it’s no longer detrimental to the intent” of the law establishing the district. 

The revised design eliminates a 20-foot-wide driveway on the west boundary, replacing it with a lawn sloping up to existing grade and adding 3,200 square feet of green space. That results in a shorter retaining wall, built in the style of the current stone wall along the sidewalk. The revised design also would likely save existing trees along the west property line.

A planned ambulance access on the west side of the building moves to the street-facing bays, and the training tower originally on the front northeast corner moves to the rear, where it is mostly hidden from The Great Road.

Canciello asked about possibilities for “a more decorative apron finish.” Concrete is most durable, Schmigle said. Hanson added that he is researching options.

“What we needed was a professional study that eliminated all other sites,” said Canciello, an architect. Now, he said, “We have a gun to our heads. If we don’t approve this, we are stopping the fire station.”

Before the presentation of revisions, commission members explained their negative votes at the January hearing. Canciello said he didn’t explain his opposition at the meeting because a vote was called suddenly. 

On Wednesday, he cited the specific directions of the enabling act. It requires proper context – a building’s size and shape in relation to the land and the neighborhood. Canciello also stressed that the current white-frame building is part of the contributing landscape to a National Register of Historic Places district. 

The proposed building footprint, including an outbuilding for storage, is “way out of scale”-four times the size of any building within 1,000 feet-said Canciello, displaying a diagram to support his point. The project, he said, would disrupt “landscaping character” that defines the entire block, removing 124 feet of “planted landscape feature” and creating a “gap in the pedestrian fabric.”

Residentially scaled buildings characterize the area, he said, and although he appreciates the efforts to present a compatible design, the building’s mass and scale are not consistent and “the proposed fire station would negatively impact the Historic District.”

Long, who voiced his skepticism at the HDC’s initial discussion of the proposal almost two years ago, said he opposes demolition and alteration of the site because “the goal of preservation is in the public interest, as defined in the enabling law.

“The building and associated structure, including the sloping lawn and landscaping, are historic resources and contributing elements” to the National Register district, as defined by state and federal sources, he said. The commission’s guidelines allow demolition “only if a building or structure has no architectural merit or relationship to the Historic District.”

The proposed fire station “is just too large for the site,” and almost no land would remain outside of buildings and pavement, he continued. “Destroying the existing historic building would be detrimental to the public welfare and replacement would be counter to the purpose of the act,” he said. 

Kalil-Brown, who quoted extensively from the enabling act, emphasized the removal of “four feet or more of soil,” the loss of green space and trees, and “significant fencing and walling requirements.” 

HDC member Karl Winkler repeated the support for the project that he announced since it arrived on the agenda. “We are trying to have our first responders in a safer environment and we have a station that is substandard,” he said, citing the enabling act’s reference to “public welfare.” 

Long asked Winkler if currently the public is unsafe. Winkler said that if the firefighters are unsafe, by extension, the citizens are as well because “they’re the people who come to help them. Right now, it’s hard to get people to work here because the place is a dump.” 

Later in the meeting, Fire Dept. Lt. Mark Daly, a member of the Building Committee and president of the firefighters’ union, requested, “Don’t represent us by fear-mongering.” He said “vilifying” the HDC is unfair. “It’s not a great location. There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Daly said. 

HDC member Jennifer McClain is the other “yes” vote on the panel. She said her support is based on the provision in the law considering “substantial hardship.” We can’t keep hypothesizing about sites.” She added, “I sense that things are moving in a positive direction, though there are no guarantees.”

Hanson stressed that the town has never asked the HDC to change its standards because of hardship. “We took your concerns seriously,” he said. “We want the building to be as historically accurate as possible.” He acknowledged that the town has invested millions of dollars, but “our goal wasn’t to come in here and do scare tactics. We have been 100 percent focused on the design.”

Hanson told the commission that the design changes are an effort to “incorporate your feedback.” Although for operational reasons the footprint is not smaller, he said, “we made significant changes to the greenspace and the front.” The building is larger than nearby structures, he acknowledged, but so is the lot it’s on.

The town manager noted that feedback on the revisions from members of the Fire Department was “very positive.”

Kalil-Brown asked if there is any consideration of an alternative site, perhaps out of the Historic District. “Then those of us who said ‘no’ wouldn’t be torn in two directions,” said Long, who previously stated his support for the need to replace the current fire station. 

Hanson said any alternative location is going to have constraints. There is an “idea that there’s some other perfect site out there,” he said, but there’s nothing on the market and “if you’re talking eminent domain, that could take years.” A site outside the HDC “will create other unknown concerns,” and will add years to the project, “with no guarantee of a better outcome.”

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