After over a year of negotiations between the Town of Brunswick and the College regarding the soon-to-be-vacated Longfellow Elementary School, the town moved one step closer toward approving a proposed swap of the College's McLellan Building for the Longfellow property at Monday night's special Town Council meeting.
The council adopted two motions by unanimous vote concerning Longfellow. In the first, the town agreed to "exchange the Longfellow School for the McLellan Building with Bowdoin College," though final approval of the swap will be determined at a future date.
The second motion approved language to direct the town's Planning Board to review zoning ordinances in order for the property to be "zoned for an appropriate College use (excluding student residential use)."
The motion to advance rezoning at the Longfellow site does not commit the town to selecting the McLellan exchange proposal, however, and the town could still elect to take the College's offer of $2 million.
"Zone change has to happen regardless of what decision is chosen, unless the entire deal falls through," said Town Manager Gary Brown. Brown emphasized in a subsequent interview with the Orient that the College will, in all likelihood, acquire the Longfellow property. The Longfellow School, located on the southern end of campus at 21 Longfellow Avenue, is slated to close in June.
"The town is committed to entering into an agreement with the College to acquire the school, whether it be a sale or an exchange," he said.
According to the agenda packet for the Town Council meeting on Monday, acquiring McLellan would provide numerous benefits to the town. Most important, McLellan would provide space for housing town offices that are currently divided between Brunswick Station (formerly Maine Street Station) and the first floor above the police station at 28 Federal Street.
"The McLellan Building provides an opportunity to consolidate town services into the same building and to provide for sufficient meeting space for town committees, staff and public organizations," concluded the staff recommendation.
The meeting agenda packet also noted that the College's request to delay the exchange until 2014 would provide the town ample time to make a decision regarding the future of the Federal Street building. With town plans to construct a new police station advancing rapidly, the Federal Street property could be vacated in the relatively near future.
In addition to gaining improved office space, the town also has strong financial incentive to select the McLellan exchange option.
"In 2009, the town entered into a five-year lease with Bowdoin College at Maine Street Station, with Bowdoin subsidizing the lease by 75 percent," explained the recommendation. With its sublease through Bowdoin set to expire in August 2014, the town's rent costs in Brunswick Station would increase from $15,200 to $63,500 annually. By moving its council chambers into McLellan before that date, the town could avoid such a precipitous rent hike.
Following Monday's vote, Brown explained that the town would continue to work with the College with an eye toward the eventual exchange of McLellan.
"Over the next several weeks, the College will monitor the discussion about the zone change to make sure what's being proposed meets the College's expectations," he said. "The sentiment right now is for the exchange, but the Town Council hasn't decided for the exchange yet."
According to Brown, Brunswick residents have largely supported the council's decision to pursue the Longfellow-McLellan swap, and the response was similarly favorable at Monday's meeting.
"The public reaction to the meeting was entirely positive," he said. "The citizens that have weighed in on this idea recognize that this is a unique opportunity for the town of Brunswick."
Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Katy Longley publicly stated the College's interest in the property in a letter to Brown dated November 30, 2010.
In that letter, Longley outlined two options that had emerged from extended negotiations over Longfellow between the town and the College. The College offered to either purchase the property outright for $2 million or convey use of the McLellan Building, located at 85 Union Street near Brunswick Station, to the town, beginning with the first two floors in January 2014.
In the original exchange proposal, Longley stated the College's desire to retain access to the third floor of McLellan "at no cost" through 2019. In a March 28 letter to Brown, however, Longley asked that the College's control of the third floor be extended through the year 2025 in any exchange deal.
Both properties were appraised in 2010, with McLellan judged to be worth $4.3 million and Longfellow appraised at slightly under $1 million.
With town offices potentially relocating into the McLellan Building, the Inn at Brunswick Station set to open this spring and Amtrak passenger rail arriving in 2012, the long-term plans for Maine Street are slowly beginning to take shape. Yet the future expansion has its drawbacks, namely the lack of accessible public parking.
"We're experiencing a lot of converging issues at the same time," said Brown. "It is apparent that we have a lack of parking, not just in Brunswick Station but downtown.
"It's exacerbated by the arrival of trains in 2012," he added. "People who ride trains need long-term parking."
To address parking concerns that are only likely to worsen in the coming years, Brown explained that the town recently discussed the feasibility of erecting a parking garage in the McLellan lot with an outside parking consultant. Brown confirmed that the surface area was deemed sufficient for a garage.
"We've had conversations with the College, businesses in Brunswick, the railroad companies," said Brown of the parking issue. "It's not a well-kept secret...it's a chronic problem."
Although the plan is still only in the preliminary stages, Brown said he hopes to accommodate approximately 200 to 300 vehicles in a new parking facility. The current surface lot holds 80 vehicles.
"One of the next steps will be determining what's the reasonable capacity we can afford to build," said Brown. "We want to avoid putting a parking structure that makes the overall neighborhood look out of place."