Lewiston firefighters do training exercises at vacant apartment buildings at Bartlett and Walnut streets Tuesday. Community Concepts purchased the downtown properties and plans to demolish the tenement houses and redevelop the corner. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — The sound of chain saws and breaking glass filled the air Tuesday morning on Bartlett and Walnut streets, as firefighters trained at a pair of condemned downtown properties.

One team was cutting through the roof to practice ventilation, while another was cutting down the windowsills to floor level at the adjacent property, a method to rescue a trapped person.

The buildings, at 119 Bartlett St. and 42 Walnut St. are owned by LA Community Housing, a subsidiary of the Lewiston nonprofit Community Concepts. They are a central piece of a recently-approved plan that aims to redevelop housing and address other complex issues facing the Tree Streets neighborhood.

As the buildings are set to be demolished, along with one nearby at 107 Bartlett St., Community Concepts partnered with the Fire Department on the training, which will continue Wednesday and Thursday.

Assistant Fire Chief Mark Caron, who was on scene Tuesday, said the department doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to conduct similar training, especially on buildings that have so much in common with what the department typically sees.

“We have to have a building that’s going to be torn down to get this kind of real experience,” he said.

Shawn Yardley, the CEO of Community Concepts, was also on scene.

He said the plan for the condemned properties from the outset was to demolish in order to make them “ready and available” for redevelopment, which is at least two years away.

Yardley said the organization was excited to partner with the city and get a “final public use out of the properties to help train the Fire Department.”

“It seemed like the perfect conclusion to the life of these buildings,” he said. “These buildings are not unlike many buildings in this community.”

Lewiston firefighters ascend an aerial ladder to the roof of a downtown apartment building at Bartlett and Walnut streets Tuesday. Community Concepts plans to demolish two apartment building and redevelop the corner. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The demolition, however, hit a snag Monday when the Finance Committee voted 3-2 to deny acceptance of a bid from St. Laurent & Son of Lewiston for the work. It submitted the lowest bid at $37,050 for the three properties,  plus $10 per yard for any additional fill, and $45 per yard for loaming and seeding in the spring.

The City Council voted 6-1 in August to allocate $135,000 for demolition work.

According to Ed Barrett, Lewiston’s city administrator, the City Charter states that “anyone aggrieved” by a decision of the Finance Committee can appeal that decision within seven days. He said as city administrator he plans to appeal and anticipates the City Council will take up the appeal at a future meeting.

In an audio recording of the Finance Committee meeting Monday, several members asked why the city is paying to raze buildings it doesn’t own.

“Is it typical that we’d be (demolishing) properties owned by Community Concepts?” one member asked.

Misty Parker, economic development manager in Lewiston, told the Finance Committee the city has partnered with LA Community Housing on the demolition as part of the larger transformation plan.

The city, with Community Concepts, will apply in 2020 for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant that, if successful, could yield between $10 million and $30 million for implementation. The 250-page transformation plan was created through an earlier planning grant from HUD, making Lewiston the first city of its size to receive the grant.

The other recipients were Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

The property at 107 Bartlett St. was purchased by Community Concepts, which plans to demolish it and one at 119 Bartlett St. and one at 42 Walnut St. to redevelop the area. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The plan identifies two major redevelopment sites, a 66-unit, mixed-use development on Pine Street along Kennedy Park and a 64-unit, family-oriented redevelopment along Pine and Bartlett streets. The latter redevelopment site has a mix of parcels owned by the city and LA Community Housing. Much of the city property is already vacant.

“Community Concepts effectively stepped in and acquired those distressed properties around those vacant lots so we’d have sufficient land area to do something meaningful,” Barrett told the Finance Committee.

City Councilor Michael Marcotte, who was the lone vote against the funding in August, said during the Finance Committee meeting, “I don’t think it’s the proper use of taxpayers’ money to provide nonprofits this attention to take down buildings for new ones to be put up on more taxpayers’ money.”

City Councilor Jim Lysen argued that the amount of money that’s being invested in the downtown properties far exceeds the demolition costs.

“It’s one of the most exciting initiatives in the city for a long, long time,” he said.

Barrett said Tuesday that the Finance Committee vote impacts the timeline of the demolition, as Community Concepts and the city, who have partnered in the grant process, were hoping to take down the properties in November before winter weather arrives.

He said buildings are often soaked in water before demolition to avoid dust and contaminants in the air, and pushing it back could cause the project to run into below-freezing weather.

With the City Council not set to meet until Nov. 19, Barrett said the council may hold a special meeting to take the vote.

Yardley said Tuesday that once demolition occurs, the organization was planning to put a community garden or another public use on the land, rather than “just a chain-link fence.”

“We want people to know there’s a future for this property,” he said.

Next door, a vacant city lot has also been used as a community gathering space. It’s known in the Tree Streets as the “PUG,” for pop-up garden.

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