LEWISTON — After saving it from demolition last summer and arranging to buy it from the city for $1, a pair of Portland-based developers are hoping to see the long-shuttered Lincoln Street firehouse open for business later this year.
Kara Wilbur and Paul Peck want to attract a restaurant or brewery and renovate the second story into two apartments.
“The quality of the bricks and the pointing is really good,” Wilbur said during a recent tour of 188 Lincoln St. “It’s just this kind of cool, midcentury modern (look) before modern got weird and ugly. It’s simple, stripped down. We’ve been imagining it as this industrial kind of chic space.”
The substation was built in 1964 to serve the mills and the Little Canada neighborhood. The last firetruck left in 1996. It served in later years as space for the Police Department’s Computer Crimes Task Force and storage for Public Works.
It had issues with leaks and mold, and by last year the city awarded a demolition contract to take it down.
It was the words “St. Laurent demo” spray-painted on the building that caught Wilbur’s eye.
Wilbur is co-chairwoman of the Build Maine conference held in Lewiston. The conference last year added cones and made other temporary bike-friendly changes to Lincoln Street in a safety experiment that slowed traffic.
After seeing that the old substation was marked for demolition, she reached out to city staff to see if it was too late to save it and approached Paul Peck, president of the Maine Real Estate & Development Association, to see if he’d like to partner on a project.
“Kara is very dedicated to urban renewal,” said Peck, who liked what he saw when he visited the building.
Lincoln Jeffers, the city’s economic and community development director, said four people contacted them after the spray paint went up. Two proposals were pitched to city councilors last year in executive session. Despite already having awarded the demolition bid and demo had begun, councilors halted the process and picked Wilbur and Peck’s plan.
“(Lincoln Street’s) done pretty well from Main Street. You’ve got Rails restaurant and Fish Bones and DaVinci’s; let’s keep migrating it up Lincoln Street,” Jeffers said. “Having people living upstairs, having another restaurant down there, that’s what excited the council, which is why they endorsed the project.”
The city firehouse is assessed at $195,280. Wilbur and Peck have a purchase-and-sale agreement in place that gives them until June 1 to close or give notice of closing.
The city has laid out three conditions before it will finalize the sale for $1, according to Jeffers:
• Construction drawings that support the project’s feasibility;
• A commitment in writing “from a credit-worthy restaurant tenant or other tenant acceptable to the seller;” and
• Evidence of financing.
“This is a smaller but more complicated one than I’ve done in a long time,” said Peck, whose past projects have included building 100 condominiums at Sugarloaf Mountain ski resort. “Complicated because it’s a beautiful building, but it’s amazing how expensive everything is to fix up.”
They’re pursuing historic tax credits after having worked to get the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which also takes time.
“The critical piece is we’re looking for the right tenant that sees this as a landmark building, that sees this as an anchor to that foodie-beer-doughnut neighborhood,” he said. “The city’s been very supportive and understanding. We want to move as fast as we can. There’s a lot of opportunity, I think, in the business world there.”
Wilbur said they’ve set a construction budget of $600,000. She’d like to see work move along quickly enough for the new tenant to open this summer.
She recently spent hours cleaning out the space, removing lots of old fire equipment and evidence that someone had been squatting there. There’s a huge, high-ceiling bay where firetrucks used to park, one small room to the side, and a kitchen and basement, in addition to the space upstairs.
“It’s going to stay looking like this,” Wilbur said.”It’s going to have exposed duct work, polished concrete floors. It’s really just going to get a little bit of a makeover without really changing the look and feel of the space. We’ll get it on the tax rolls for the city for the first time ever. I think that’s pretty exciting.”
She got to know business owners along Lincoln Street by dropping by to get feedback on the road changes made for the Build Maine conference last summer. On the whole, they weren’t fans but were pleasant and respectful about it, she said.
When Wilbur circled back for thoughts on the firehouse being demolished, they were surprised and wanted to see it stay.
In a year, she hopes to see “the kind of place where I’m excited to come up and grab a beer and hang out with some friends,” Wilbur said. “This neighborhood is just turning. I think it’s a forgotten neighborhood in a way, Little Canada, but it’s just sort of this melting pot, people from all different cultures down here. I think it has a ton of potential to change and evolve.”
Kara Wilbur holds an object she found while cleaning out the former Lewiston Fire Department substation on Lincoln Street. She couldn’t identify the object. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
The second floor of the former firehouse on Lincoln Street in Lewiston was used by police after the firehouse closed in 1996. Portland-based developers propose to turn the upstairs into two apartments. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
An artist’s rendering depicts the proposed renovation of the former Lincoln Street firehouse in Lewiston. Two Portland-based developers have an option on the city property and hope to redevelop it by moving in a restaurant or brewery this year. (Submitted photo)