Ashland Public forum on old police and fire stations
By Patricia Roy
With the long-needed Public Safety Building headed for completion this spring, residents met on Jan. 25 to discuss prospective uses of the old Police and Fire Department Buildings at 137 and 151 Main St.
The meeting was a hybrid of in-person and Zoom attendance with about 70 people turning out to hear plans and offer their opinions on what should happen with the old down town buildings. The meeting was led by Town Manager Michael Herbert, joined by Assistant Town Manager Jen Ball and Beth Reynolds, Economic Development Director.
The two buildings are on one parcel, currently valued at $1.5 million according to Herbert, but due to the need for significant renovation costs, he said bids would likely come in significantly lower.
The public input process was designed to find the “sweet spot” between what the public wants in that location and what is actually feasible, he said.
The town issued a Request for Information (RFI) in the fall, said Ball, rather than a more formal Request for Proposals that a municipality typically need to issue before disposing of any land.
The RFI is non-binding, and the town is able to issue restrictions on the parcel for the two buildings, as well as learning from interested parties what is feasible for development purposes.
Town officials and residents in attendance were interested in maintaining the façade of the historic firehouse.
“We all know that’s very important to the community,” Ball said.
The town is also stipulating that residential housing not be included in future proposals for the property. Additional parking would be considered if it supports the downtown commercial area, she said.
The RFI was closed in December, but attracted 20 prospects and three walk-throughs. Several letters were received after the deadline and officials followed them up.
Reynolds said a statement of interest was received from Stuart Rothman, developer of The Block in Natick, featuring food and retail spaces and highlight public art.
Reynolds proposed a similar arrangement for the police and fire parcel with retail popup spaces for emerging brands, local dynamic art, with potentially a café in the fire station and a black box theater at the old police station.
Rothman had concerns, stating that the site would most likely not support a substantial acquisition cost, Reynolds reported.
“He was very clear about that,” she said.
Clover Brewing, a brewer located in Hudson, proposed a tap room and barrel aging facility with light food service, possible food trucks and a patio in front of the fire station. The brewing company is only interested in leasing the property and has no interest in the police station.
Local resident Fabio Fragale had an interest in the entire property with the fire station becoming an Italian restaurant with office space potentially on the second floor. About 25 percent of the police station fronting Main Street would be dedicated to several storefronts, he wrote to the town.
While Fragale has indicated he is interested in purchasing the parcel, he has yet to tour it, Reynolds said.
One out of town restaurant owner did tour the property, but stated the police station would need to be leveled creating a parking lot that could be rented and the fire station would need to be renovated. The estimated $2 million cost would make it unfeasible for any owner, the restauranteur claimed.
A light manufacturer was concerned about potential flooding in the fire station basement, but Herbert said that issue had been resolved by reconstructing a culvert and installation of sump pumps.
The fire station clearly was held in deep affection by residents at the meeting, with several residents supporting the idea of opening the large doors fronting the sidewalk and to become seasonal patio that would engage with the streetscape.
However, there was not much love for the police station that most said lacked architectural interest.
The town has finished collecting public input and will collate it to create a Request for Proposals for the property.
Officials can create the request so it is most advantageous to the town, taking into account the vibrancy the proposal will bring to downtown, project feasibility and consistency with the vision for area.
A committee appointed by the Chief Procurement Office would include Ball, Reynolds and resident volunteers will rank applications based on specific criteria. Residents will vote on the recommendation of the committee at the annual town meeting on May 3.
Once those responding to the RFP do their due diligence, the town will have a better idea of whether a residential component will need to be a part of the project, Herbert said.