Select Board Refines Vision For Eldredge Garage Property; Talks Underway With Potential Private Donor

By: Alan Pollock

An artist’s rendering of the remodeled building as viewed from Main Street. CATALYST ARCHITECTS

CHATHAM The select board is moving closer to a conceptual design for improving the Eldredge Garage property that they hope will win the support of voters and neighbors – and a potential benefactor.

Sidelined because of the pandemic and other budget priorities, the project was back before the board last week, with Kurt Raber of Catalyst Architects providing new drawings. Raber proposed remodeling the existing 644-square-foot service station building to create space for three rest rooms, a lobby and storage space for a valet parking operation, all on the current site at 365 Main St.

“True historians might want to hear the word ‘restoration,’” Raber said. “We think the building sort of deteriorated and needs more than a restoration.” The structure sits very low to the ground, with the sill slightly below grade in some places. “Moisture has just attacked the building,” he said.

Raber proposed a structural reinforcement of the historic building, retaining a similar roof design with exposed rafter tails.

“Some of these features we want to keep and embellish,” he said. The new structure will be a “very, very similar building in shape and size, just sort of refined and cleaned up a little bit,” he said.

The plan calls for the building to be relocated from its current spot around 20 feet from Main Street to a new location six or seven feet off the road. Doing so would provide better traffic flow around the proposed public parking area, which would provide 67 parking spaces, four electric vehicle charging stations and a bicycle repair kiosk. The rear portion of the property would be kept as open space, with a wildlflower meadow and a path mowed in the grass.

The remodeled building would be placed on a new foundation and would sit between six and 12 inches higher than the original. The improved structure would have full plumbing and insulation to allow it to be used for three or four seasons. It would also meet all the necessary building codes.

“It’s hard to do that in a restored kind of antique building,” Raber said.

Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan said talks are underway with a nearby resident who has offered a financial donation to help cover the cost of the project. The town is not yet disclosing the name of the would-be donor, and the terms of any contribution have yet to be worked out, she said.

In various stages of planning for years, the project is the outgrowth of recommendations from an ad hoc committee in 2018, with town meeting appropriating preliminary design funds the following year. In recognition of the efforts of those citizens, the historical commission and historic business district commission, and resident David Oppenheim, who helped facilitate the town’s purchase of the property, “I think we owe it to everyone to try and move this forward,” select board member Dean Nicastro said.

The project initially included funds to improve drainage on Main Street in front of the property, which frequently floods after heavy rains. But to address that problem more quickly, the drainage component was added to a different capital article, and officials say the new drains should be complete by mid-December.

“I think everybody’s going to be happy to hear that,” Nicastro said. While the latest design calls for remodeling the building, not fully restoring it, “I would like to see us preserve historically as much as we can,” he said.

Early cost estimates for the project ranged from $1.4 to $1.58 million.

“Because this is going to be an expensive project either way, and with all the other needs we have in the town, we don’t want to be going to town meeting looking for huge amounts of money,” Nicastro said. Ideally, Community Preservation Act funds and the private donation could lower the cost to taxpayers. “I think the goal should be to try and reach a mutually agreeable resolution that allows us to tap into the private donation, consistent with what the town wants to do,” he said.

Board member Cory Metters said the donor’s potential offer is “extremely generous,” but added that it would be helpful to understand what design stipulations the donor might have before proceeding. It is possible that the donor’s vision of the property “may or may not align with some of the details that have been presented tonight,” Metters said.

Some cost savings might be achieved by reducing the number of rest rooms from three to two, board member Shareen Davis said. The facility can be an opportunity to share with visitors some of the history of the property and the neighborhood, she said. Davis suggested doing “something a little more robust inside that depicts a certain era of transportation in town, in some sort of wall displays.” Before it was demolished for safety reasons, the Eldredge Garage was a service station for automobiles, and before that, a livery stable for horses.

Board member Jeffrey Dykens said he prefers a design that retains the historic feel of the existing building, but he doesn’t favor attempting to save rotten window sills and other damaged parts of the structure.

“We want a 40-to-50-year asset that maintains all of the historic elements that give that flavor of the Eldredge Garage in that new building,” he said. “I don’t want to be throwing good money after bad.”

“I think we need bathrooms down there,” board Chair Peter Cocolis said. He also praised the inclusion of the electric vehicle charging stations, which he said will be increasingly in demand in the future.

The board asked Donovan to work with Raber to further refine the plans to reflect two rest rooms rather than three, and to provide a price differential between moving the building versus leaving it in its current location. The board also encouraged Donovan to begin informal discussions with the HBDC on the conceptual design.