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Armory arts center
South Portland's vacant landmark could be reborn as a cultural icon

A 25,000-square-foot building sits on just shy of three acres at the foot of the south end of the Casco Bay Bridge. Vacant since 1996, the former South Portland armory remains in limbo. its owner, the moribund Museum of Glass and Ceramics, declared bankruptcy last year, before ever moving in.

Even a wealthy real-estate developer, Cape Elizabeth's Greg Boulos, a partner in the Boulos Company, one of Maine's largest development firms, last month withdrew an offer to buy the building. He had not expressed any specific plans for the building.

But the armory would be the perfect spot for a multi-disciplinary arts center, with room for a performance-and-exhibition space, soundproof rehearsal rooms, photo darkrooms, small offices for business activities, and ample parking.

All of those things are needed in greater Portland, and an arts-oriented developer was interested enough to want to tour the building after hearing the idea.


The building is in a landmark position at the entrance to South Portland, an area used to lots of traffic, where attracting more wouldn't be a real problem.

There is room for parking on the armory property, as well as on an adjoining lot owned by Central Maine Power (CMP).

John Carroll, CMP's manager of communications and company relations, said the company had been in talks with the museum about using some of CMP's land — a transmission corridor under high-tension power lines — as a parking area. Carroll said the company would be "open to" discussing a similar arrangement with another owner of the building.

But the real possibilities are inside.

The building's formal entryway, with three doors facing the bridge, is a beautiful space, with wood paneling and brick features reminiscent of government buildings of the early 1940s — when public spaces still sported some degree of grandeur in addition to cheap functionality.

Paint flakes and pieces of broken drop-ceiling tile crunch underfoot in the lobby, a bright space on a rainy day, even with no overhead lights.

Facing the entrance is a reception-style office, with a sliding glass window and side door. To the left is a large space with two offices and a storage area. To the right is a three-office suite with a storage room. (On the wall in one of this suite's offices is a phone jack labeled in red "Hot Line President.")

A hallway runs the width of the building, with small offices and what is now storage space off of it. With a little plumbing, the windowless storage rooms would be excellent — and roomy — darkrooms.

Upstairs is another pair of office suites, with funky skylights in the ceiling. Across the hall are two viewing galleries, long rooms with windows overlooking the building's star attraction: a full-size basketball court, 150 feet long and 100 feet wide, with a double-height ceiling complete with steel beams for rafters.

On each side of the ground-floor entrance to the court are storage areas or small offices.

And running the length of the court on both sides, behind massive garage-type doors, are equipment bays once used by the National Guard to service their vehicles. There are storage spots here and smaller offices, like parts desks at a car dealer.

A group of arts organizations, or individual artists, all looking for office space, gallery or performance space, or even just a conference room to hold business meetings, could get together to purchase the building. Each of them could have some office space, sharing the gymnasium area, which could be easily refitted into a performance space with shared lighting and technical equipment. A part of the gym could be made into a conference room, or even a small gallery for visual arts. The equipment bays could be walled off and made into music-rehearsal spaces.

The common spaces could also be made available for rental by other groups, on a shared-revenue model or even at a flat fee, to help generate revenue.


Starting with the obvious, the entire building could use a floor-to-ceiling paint job.

There are a couple of small bathrooms, but nothing on the scale of what would be needed to serve a performance audience. There no elevator to the second floor. And there is no central heating-system — for some reason the National Guard took it when they left.

But the armory building could be had for $20 a square foot — a bargain-basement deal if ever there was one. The property has outstanding mortgages and taxes due totaling right around $615,000. It is valued at $600,000 in the museum's bankruptcy filing, though the city assessor's office rates it at $515,400.

Boulos had offered $625,000, but pulled out after failing to get an extension to a 45-day deal, according to bankruptcy trustee William Howison, who has control of the building until it is sold. Howison said Boulos wanted eight months to get permits to develop the property.

"He wanted more time and I wasn't willing to agree to it" because a Chapter-7 bankruptcy is supposed to be a relatively quick liquidation of assets, rather than a months-long process, Howison said. Boulos was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Fred W. Bopp III, an attorney with Perkins Thompson who is representing Howison, said the deal should at minimum pay off the mortgages and taxes, and ideally would generate some additional income to pay off other creditors the museum has.

"We are still trying to see if we can put together a sale that makes sense," Bopp said. Neither he nor Howison would talk about how much interest, if any, the building has generated. No offers other than Boulos's have been filed with the bankruptcy court.

What could be done with the building "depends on how much money you have," Howison said. The building is zoned as a residential property, allowing no more than four housing units per acre, or a church, school, museum, or municipal building. It also could allow "recreational or community activity buildings" if they were run as non-profit organizations.

For certain uses, a buyer might need to get a zoning change or variance from the city, though the property is in a high-traffic area next to the fire and police station and across Broadway from a busy shopping area.

The zoning has limited "somewhat" interest from developers, Howison said.

If he cannot sell the building, he will have to get the mortgagors to accept less than their full investment as repayment, or let them foreclose and perhaps auction the building.


The amount of money involved is a good fit, according to David Shorette, treasurer of the Children's Theatre of Maine, which offered roughly $800,000 for a building in Westbrook last year.

"We'd like to buy a building" and "$600,000 seems quite doable," he said. "I think the location is perfect," though it may have asbestos, which could increase the cost of renovations.

Shorette said there is a need for more room for artists to work and practice. His wife is a dancer, and groups with which she performs are always trying to find rehearsal space and end up changing locations and times often to make schedules work.

The city of South Portland has been interested in the building for a decade. It offering $250,000 for the armory to the state in 1996, then upped its offer to $350,000 in 2001. The city is considering whether to make another offer now.

According to South Portland city attorney Mary Kahl, the armory building has been discussed as a possible new home for the public-works department or for offices for South Portland's city-hall, both of which agencies are slated for new facilities or relocation.

South Portland mayor Maxine Beecher said one problem could be parking — though a CMP agreement could help — and another could be access, because the site is right off a busy intersection with traffic-control islands preventing people from turning into it when heading west on Broadway.

She said there has been talk of housing small art galleries in the building, but zoning restrictions were an unknown factor (though such use might be allowed if the building was owned by a non-profit group).

"I always wanted us to have it" for the city, she said, with the idea of keeping a part of it — including the picturesque front facade — and possibly selling a portion of the property.

Beecher said she liked the idea of drawing more artists to the city and said the schools might be able to get more involved with professional artists and creators.


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Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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