HARWICH — Town staff has recommended against locating a restaurant in the former East Harwich fire substation, a proposal raised recently by a local restaurateur who sought to lease the building next to the new fire station.
Town Administrator Christopher Clark said he has been approached by the owner of the 400 East restaurant about leasing the soon-to-be-demolished East Harwich fire substation. Clark said the owner approached Selectman Ed McManus and “I’ve had off and on contact with the 400 East.”
Clark received an email three weeks ago from Gail Sluis, principal owner of the restaurant, stating it has come to her attention there is the possibility the town might be interested in leasing the old firehouse. She said it would be of great interest to the 400 East owners.
“We ideally would like to move our current business to that location when our lease is up, but if the lot cannot handle the capacity we are looking for (seating 120-150) then we would still be interested in pursuing the lease from the town perhaps creating a smaller venue … an offshoot of our current business. Music, bar, outdoor space, indoor space for dining and smaller gatherings. We have even talked about the possibility of a brewery,” the email stated.
Fire Chief Norman Clarke, Jr. told selectmen last week the original contract for the old East Harwich fire substation called for demolishing it, but there could be a change of plans. The fire chief has recommended selectmen visit the station, located on the northeast side of the intersection of routes 137 and 39, so they can examine the construction of the new station and determine what they want to do on that site.
“We’re hearing from folks in the community that maybe we should reconsider,” Clarke told selectmen of demolition last week. “I need some direction.”
“People are coming to me and asking how come you’re going to tear that building down,” Board of Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said.
Ballantine placed the topic on Monday’s agenda for discussion.
In last week’s meeting, Selectman Donald Howell asked about tree cutting activities there and whether they are related to expanding the park at the corner of the intersection. Clarke said the tree removal that has taken place addressed a line of sight issue for vehicles.
But the town has discussed making improvements to the park at the immediate corner of that intersection. A year ago, there were plans to create a new veterans’ memorial park there, adding a few benches and a smaller flagpole than the one that disguises the cell tower components. But Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh said the town withdrew those plans from the planning board last fall.
The fire chief indicated he had a change order prepared for the location of a retaining wall on the property to separate the old station from the new one built to the east, but he first wants to hear what selectmen may and may not want to do there.
The town had considered forestalling the demolition of the building a couple of months ago and leasing it to the Robert B. Our Company while they worked on the East Harwich sewer installation project now underway. But the Our Company leased a smaller building across Route 137 to serve as a field office.
Sluis’ email mentioned the use of the building for a field office and said the two to three years of use would give them time to put plans for the site in place. The 400 East has five years left on its lease at the Harwich East Plaza.
The contract for the new fire station calls for demolition of the older station and the town administrator said that would not likely take place until the end of this month or in November. He said if a decision is made to keep the older station there would be a need for a retaining wall to separate the new fire station from any use of the old one.
Clark, in an email to Sluis, said plans for demolition can be put on hold while the board of selectmen make a decision on the future of the site. Should selectmen decide a reuse of the site is appropriate, he said state law requires a particular process for the town to lease or sell the property, including requests for proposals and a bidding provision. It would require a vote of town meeting to sell a section of the 3.2-acre parcel.
When asked about reuse of the building after it was determined not to be suitable for fire department use, Clark cited the absence of locker rooms and the inability to address increased department needs in large part generated by the expanded Fontaine Medical Center in East Harwich. He said the substation could not handle the higher level of staffing.
“You want a station that can meet 2020 standards and at least 20 years beyond,” Clark said. “You don’t get that with a station designed in 1972.”
The fire chief also said they explored reuse of the substation, but it would have cost $1 million more to do the renovations and expansion than to build a new station there.
Town staff visited the old fire station this week and the fire chief reported to selectmen Monday night the conclusion was the building has to be demolished. The staff cited runoff and square footage issues and a parking lot for reuse of the old station would be 15 feet from the new fire station. They came to the conclusion it was not appropriate for reuse.
Clarke said that once the structure is demolished, the property could be reused, and the land would likely be worth more than the building. Clarke told selectmen the contractor wants to move the demolition project along as they wrap up the project.
Selectman Michael MacAskill said the agenda item allowing discussion was under the town administrator’s report and they should place an agenda item allowing for the board’s vote on next week’s agenda. He said he supports the staff’s findings.