LEWISTON — City officials are confident a program designed to remove derelict downtown tenements is working, slowly but surely.
In fact, they think Friday's fire on Pierce Street could have been much worse without it.
"It's difficult to say for sure, but I believe that fire would have been much more difficult to fight," Lewiston Budget and Purchasing Director Norm Beauparlant said Monday.
Last summer, 13 downtown tenements that had been abandoned by their owners and mortgage holders were torn down and carted off. One of those buildings was at 122 Pierce St., a four-unit building city councilors agreed to tear down last June. It was gone by late last year.
The empty lot where it stood is just southeast of the southern edge of Friday's fast-spreading fire. A vacant tenement in that lot would have given the fire one more vacant building to burn and one more chance to spread, Beauparlant said.
"It would have spread down Pierce Street and farther into Bartlett Street," Beauparlant said. "It would have been just like a chimney."
Beauparlant has been a key part of the city's effort to thin the downtown housing stock, getting rid of aging tenements that have not been maintained. Lewiston code enforcement officials work to identify problem buildings, city councilors approve them for demolition and Beauparlant oversees the process.
The goal of the city's demolition program hasn't been to create fire breaks downtown, but to thin the housing stock and get rid of some of the worst buildings in the city.
"The fires, I believe, are an anomaly," Planning and Code Enforcement Director Gil Arsenault said. "I'm hoping that this is it, and I don't think there is anything realistic the city could do to stop people from setting fires."
It's working, he said.
"These were 13 multifamily buildings that were blighting influences, that were security issues and had no reuse potential," Arsenault said. "I expect going forward, until we round the corner, we will be taking town buildings on an ongoing basis."
Lewiston Assessor Joe Grube said the four census tracts that contain Lewiston's downtown — ranging from the Androscoggin River to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge in the north and to East Avenue in the south and east — has an estimated 1,815 dwelling units ranging from single family homes to apartment buildings with 20 or more individual apartments.
Beauparlant and the city's code enforcement staff maintain a list of 86 downtown buildings that have been condemned or are considered to be vacant or abandoned. Beauparlant said another five buildings are scheduled for demolition this summer.
Arsenault said it's part of a long process the city needs to follow to help repair the city's downtown housing stock.
"At the end of the day, we don't own the buildings, and we cannot control them," Arsenault said.
At a press conference Monday, Arsenault said the building damaged by fire at 82 Pine St. will be taken down this week, as will buildings damaged on Bartlett and Pierce streets.