How to sell a jail (or a mansion, or a school) in 2012
BELFAST - Creative conversions of 100-plus-year-old buildings is nothing new. The spacious, character-filled factories of the second industrial revolution, chicken barns and even big box stores have subjects of what is broadly termed "adaptive reuse." But other types of properties have been harder pressed to move beyond the circumstances of their times.
In Belfast, three historically-valuable but commercially tricky properties — products of expansive 19th and early 20th Century thinking that have struggled to find a place in the more modest post-millenial version of the city — are breaking from tradition in hopes of making a comeback.
The stories are different enough that an argument could easily be made against grouping them under one banner. By the same token, the details give a snapshot of some of what it takes to keep these old buildings viable.
Consider: a 200-year-old mansion on its way to becoming a school; a three-times-defunct school of mansion proportions looking for a new owner; and an old jail complex recently placed under new ownership, sort of, as prod to some as-yet-unknown redevelopment (a school is not among the options).
Johnson-Pratt House > Children's Voice Preschool
Perched at the crest of Primrose Hill, overlooking downtown Belfast from beneath a heavy Greek Revival facade, the home at 212 High Street — known today by surnames of the families that saw it through its heyday — spent its first two centuries as a private residence, but appears poised to make a clean break in its third.
Earlier this month the home sold to Midcoast LLC, an investment entity led by Head Start teacher Iris Hooper of Frankfort, who received approval from the Belfast Planning Board in September to retrofit the building and grounds as a preschool.
The idea took serious heat from neighbors who voiced concerns at several Planning Board meetings about what they saw as a desecration of the landmark mansion. One of the neighbors threatened to go to court over it. But the appeal period came and went quietly, and Nov. 5, Hooper and company closed on the home.
Speaking recently, Assistant City Planner James Francomano guessed that the detractors got a look at the range of things that could have happened and adjusted their expectations.
"In the lengthy public hearing process, we made it clear that very intensive uses could be permitted on the property," he said. "Two or three duplexes could have been lined up in the backyard."
The review process also revealed that property could be clearcut under the current zoning, and that despite lengthy discussions on preserving as many mature trees on the property as possible, the clear-cutting would have been historically accurate to when the home was built. Additionally, the exterior of the home could have been painted pink, or any other number of dramatic modifications short of outright demolition — a bare minimum protection afforded by home's location within a registered historic district. In short, there were a lot more dramatic things that could have happened to the house.
All of this assumes a kind of Home Alone view of what would transpire in a historic mansion made available to children, which according to Hooper is all wrong. Her opponents were so focused on putting the brakes on the project, she said, that they didn't consider that her plan might be a good one, despite being different. And that it might even protect the historic property in the long run.
"It's not our intent to destroy this beautiful place, but to enhance it with new life through the children and give something new to the community," she said.
The 1.5 acres parcel on which the Johnson-Pratt house sits is unusually large for its proximity to the downtown commercial district. Add a 4,880-square-foot home to maintain, a half-million dollar price tag — the property was listed in 2009 for $875,000, but by September of this year had been marked down to $495,000 — and a $10,000 annual tax bill, and its easy to see how it might have languished on the single-family-home market.
According to Hooper, the appearance of the home from High Street will remain basically the same as it has for 200 years. The largest changes approved by the Planning Board will out of public view, including a playground and a new driveway. The entrance and exit to the school is planned to be on Waldo Avenue at the same location as an existing overgrown driveway marked today by a white gate amid the screen of trees, suggesting that the view from the rear of the property may not change much either.
Work on the grounds will likely start in the spring, Hooper said. The interior renovations, including the addition of sprinklers to meet state fire marshal requirements and other modifications to the first floor as part of the conversion to a preschool will likely start later, she said.
Hooper and her husband plan to live in an efficiency apartment on the second floor, with the remainder of the floor — a portion Hooper described as the former servants' quarters — to be reserved for guests and visiting family members.
Approval for the school will ultimately be hinge upon licensing from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Hooper's approved site plan was based on projections of up to 40 students, the maximum allowed in a building of that size.
"I may or may not be able to fill that at any given time, but if there's a need for it, I'd like to be licensed to fill that," she said.
Hooper said she was initiailly hoping to be open for the summer but said the earliest would be the fall with a lot to do between now and then.
"I'm so early into this that a lot of what I'm hoping for is still in the dreaming stage," she said.
On the education side, Hooper said she is optimistic about potential for the school. Subsidized preschools have taken financial hits recently — cuts to the federally funded Head Start programs were among the more publicized — but to what extent Children's Voice will be public or private remains to be seen, Hooper said.
"I really want this to be a place that all kids can use one way or another," she said. "I have a lot of ideas, but they're ideas at this point."
The Peirce School > Belfast Christian School > Belfast Academy of Music > ?
After being rendered obsolete by consolidation and being briefly revived twice — first as a private Christian school then as a private music school — the former Peirce Elementary School is for sale by owner. The school was built in 1915. Nearly a century later it was closed along with two other elementary schools, and the students consolidated into the newly-constructed Captain Albert Stevens School.
The Walsingham Academy (later Belfast Christian School) operated out of the building for two years, but ultimately folded. In 2007, the city put the school up for sale and chose William Ryan from among several bidders, including Cornerspring Montessori School, and a couple who wanted to make the school a private home, based on Ryan's proposal to open the Belfast Academy of Music as a nexus for local music instruction.
The school operated briefly, obtaining nonprofit status, providing space for music instruction and holding occasional concerts, but in 2011 Ryan closed the school citing financial difficulties brought on by the recession. The original deed from the city included a buy-back clause if the school didn't meet certain conditions within the first five years. By anything but a loose reading, the programming at BAM fell far short, but the city took no action to enforce the contract, which would have allowed the city to buy the building back for the $265,000 Ryan paid, plus the cost of any renovations.
According to City Manager Joe Slocum the the Council discussed buying the property back before the expiration of the five-year term this spring, but opted to let the period lapse. He recalled the reason having to do with liens on the property that would have bumped the total cost up. A search of documents at the Waldo County registry of deeds found only city tax liens on the property, all of which were dismissed after the back taxes were paid.
According to a brief history on peirceschool.org, the city exercised its right of first refusal and offered $265,000 for the property, "but this was declined as insufficient."
City officials could find no record of an offer. Whether one was made or not, the city lost its option to buy back the old elementary school.
So did the city let the historic school slip away?
Accoridng to Slocum, not at all.
"From a zoning perspective, we know there are only certain things that can happen there," he said. "So we weren't worried about it being turned into a McDonald's."
Outside of the allowed uses — a long list that includes single or two-family residences, public parks, health or professional offices, funeral homes, bed and breakfasts and elderly congregate housing, Slocum said a buyer with a creative idea could approach the city about bending the rules through a contract zoning agreement that would return some leverage to the city.
"The city came to a fork in the road and had to decide, do we want to be a developer at a higher price or do we want to let them market it?" he said.
If a private sale attracted a buyer with a vision of something outside the permitted uses, he said, so much the better.
"Now the city becomes a player again, but we didn't have to spend $300,000 to be a player," he said.
According to James McClelland, the principal contact at peirceschool.org, the property has had one serious offer from an individual in Philadelphia area interested in using the old school as a residence in addition to the offer stated on the website as having been made by the city. McClelland said the individual's offer was declined. An architectural firm also expressed interest, he said, but bought elsewhere.
Waldo County Jail and Jailer's House > Sheriff's Office > "Belfast Jail Theme Park?"
Originally the a jailer's house and later the sheriff's residence, the nearly 200-year-old home at 45 Congress Street served for the last 20 years as the Sheriff's Office. The attached barn and the brick building in the rear — the original Waldo County Jail — became storage for the expanding department. The old home became an increasingly odd fit for the Sheriff's Office, and after an aborted plan for an all-in-one corrections complex, the county erected a new building for the Sheriff's Office and Emergency Management Agency on the same parcel of land, which wraps around to Miller Street and includes the the newer jail building (now the Mid-Coast Regional Reentry Center and 72-hour lock-up) and the Regional Communications Center.
Talk of selling the old jailer's house came up in last year's Planning Board hearings on construction of the new Sheriff's and EMA building, but the shared walls between the various buildings didn't meet the setback requirements and the county went back to the drawing board.
The solution county officials settled on was to create a three-unit condominium out of the entire property between Congress and Miller streets under the name Congress Street Hill LLC. The largest unit would include all of the active county properties, including the Communications Center, the new Sheriff's Office and EMA building and the re-entry center. A second unit would be made of the old brick jailhouse and a third from the old sheriff's office and attached barn.
If this sounds unusual, it's because it is.
Andrew Hamilton of Eaton Peabody, who represented the county at the Nov. 14 hearing for the plan, cited the city of Brewer's creation of South Brewer Redevelopment LLC as vehicle to clean up the abandoned Eastern Fine Paper mill and eventually partner with Cianbro Corp. to open a modular construction operation as an example of of the approach, but said that case was slightly different.
"It's somewhat unique for a county or municipality to use a condominium but it's necessary because of the setbacks," he said, referrring to the shared walls between the buildings in the complex and the county's determination that it would be impractical to separate them.
A major reason for the creation of a corporation and condominium, however, is that it would allow the county to apply for a $200,000 federal EPA brownfield cleanup grant. The grants are only available to nonprofits and local government agencies, but they also require the applicant did not cause the pollution for which the cleanup money is being requested.
In the case of the county property, two environmental reviews funded by a brownfield assessment grant obtained through the city found hazardous materials consistent with construction techniques of the time (lead paint, aesbestos) and some minor contamination from hazardous materials. A leak from an outdoor oil storage tank discovered and partially mitigated after an earlier study was found not to have spread beneath the buildings as had been supposed.
But unlike Brewer, where the city stepped in to clean up a brownfield left by a manufacturer, the pollution on the Waldo County site is the county's own. As Peter Sherr, of Ransom Consulting, the firm that did the environmental evaluations on the property, pointed out, the pollution is also neither gratuitous nor inconsistent with building practices of the time. Which begs the question, why then does the county have to masquerade as a corporation to be eligible for the EPA grant?
Jim Byrne, of the EPA's brownfields clean-up grant program, acknowledged that the requirements might contradict common sense in some cases, but said transferring the property from a government body to a private entity is allowed.
"But just because they formed this entity doesn't mean it's a slam dunk," he said. "It still has to go through the review process."
Byrne said he was aware of the Waldo County application but didn't know it well enough to comment specificially. To Sherr's point about common building practices later found to be hazardous, Byrne said a property that was well maintained would be less likely to implicate the current owner.
"If the windows were broken out and the aesbestos was exposed in a way where every time the wind blew it looked like it was snowing, that might be a different thing," he said.
In Belfast, county and city officials were speaking of the condominium arrangement, not as a loophole but as a creative solution. If nothing else, the shared walls between the buildings made it necessary.
"It's a quirk in the regulations we have to go through, but it's a good quirk," said Waldo County Commissioner William Shorey. "The time has come for something to happen to that property."
City Planner Wayne Marshall applauded the county for figuring out a way to put the old buildings to a new productive use, and Sherr called the plan a "win-win for everybody."
Under current zoning restrictions, the old sheriff's office and jail units could each be converted to a single-family homes or duplexe, a public park, a bed and breakfast, professional offices or a home occupation business. They could also be used by the city or in some non-municipal public or quasi public way, with some of these uses subject to review by the Planning Board.
The range of possibilities led several Planning Board members at Wednesday's meeting to recount anecdotes of jailhouses converted into executive suites and private residences. Someone mentioned the possibility of an artist's studio in the old jail, which is reportedly completely open within the two-story shell. Another person mentioned boatbuilding.
"Visit the Belfast Jail Theme Park," joked Chairwoman Diane Allmayer-Beck, noting that the permitted uses did include "parks."
The request was deemed an amendment to the original plan, and approved unanimously with certain conditions. The Planning Board made reuses and occupancy contingent upon the completed enviromental clean-up of the buildings. The Board also set the total number of parking spaces around the two buildings at six as a way to limit the amount of traffic allowed under the initial approval.
In a Nov. 11 note to the Planning Board, City Planner Marshall concluded that the approach the county is taking may prove difficult of carry out.
"For example, I am uncertain how many persons may want to be joined at the hip through a condominium association form of ownership with a government agency such as the county."
Marshall went on to say that both of the smaller units — the former Sheriff's office and barn, and the old jail — would need extensive work and would be subject to a limited range of potential reuses.
"The county is now facing similar issues which the City of Belfast and school district has with the resue of former school buildings," he wrote. "Hopefully this approach may lead to a productive reuse of one or both buildings on the county property."
Penobscot Bay Pilot reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at email@example.com