SOUTH PORTLAND — A proposal to convert the former National Guard armory into a multi-use property with a gas station is winning rave reviews and appears to be heading toward approval.
Priority Real Estate Group of Topsham is seeking a conditional-use zoning amendment to redevelop the high-profile, city-owned building at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge. City leaders agreed to sell the city-owned armory to Priority in November.
The $2.5 million project would preserve the art deco-style front section of the brick building at 682 Broadway. In addition to a convenience store, it would contain a cafe, professional office space, community meeting space and a tourist information bureau.
City officials and others were effusive in praising the project last week during a City Council workshop, describing the proposal as creative, extraordinary and visionary because it would locate the gas pumps behind the building.
“This does feel like a very cool project,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “We certainly need a fueling station in that area. I’m proud that it’s going to be in that gateway area. There’ll be a buzz about it.”
The council is expected to vote May 4 on the zoning amendment, which the Planning Board has recommended. If the council approves the amendment, the developers would then return to the board for site plan review.
“From the city staff’s point of view, this is a really interesting project because it’s very cutting-edge,” said Tex Haeuser, city planning director. “They’re putting the pumps in back of the building. They will be much less visible than gas stations normally want them to be, so this is really good for the city.”
David Latulippe, Priority’s vice president, said his company is one of few in the country developing gas stations with pumps behind the building.
“It’s going to make South Portland stand out,” Latulippe said.
Priority also built and operates Rusty’s Market, a Shell gas station and convenience store on Route 24 in Topsham. Priority located the store near the road and put the gas pumps and parking spaces behind it, along with a gazebo, a farmstand for local growers and a bicycle maintenance station for cyclists who use a recreation path to the rear of the property.
The Maine Association of Planners named Rusty’s Market its 2013 Project of the Year because Priority worked cooperatively with town officials and neighbors to develop ordinance amendments and create a community gathering place.
Latulippe said Priority is committed to being equally responsive in South Portland, addressing concerns by integrating signs into the building’s architecture, returning the rear section of the property to open meadow and doing a traffic study that will be reviewed by the Maine Department of Transportation.
Latulippe said Priority is in “deep negotiations” with three tenants for the gas station, cafe and upstairs office space. Irving, which operates many gas stations and convenience stores in Maine, appears on the sign on the architectural sketch of the redevelopment proposal.
City Manager Jim Gailey signed a contract in November to sell the former armory to Priority for $700,000 – $50,000 more than the city paid for it eight years ago. The 2.3-acre parcel is next to the city’s central fire and police stations, and is wedged between a residential zone and a limited business zone.
Built in 1941, the now run-down and neglected armory was listed among several important “Places in Peril” by Greater Portland Landmarks in 2012. The 37,000-square-foot building includes a newer military drill hall and garage space that Priority plans to tear down. Any architecturally significant features would be preserved, including large military-themed medallions on the building’s exterior.
Latulippe said landscaping around the building would include public art, flagpoles and a gazebo. The fueling area would include a bicycle service center and two high-speed electric car charging stations. Councilors urged Latulippe to include solar energy as part of the project’s energy-efficient design.