Bristol unveils preliminary design for firehouse update, expansion

BRISTOL — Bristol residents last week got a look at an initial design for an expansion of the town’s aging firehouse. Residents on Town Meeting Day will vote on funding the creation of a final design plus purchase of a neighboring property on which to expand.
At the special selectboard meeting last Thursday in Holley Hall, architect Ashar Nelson gave a report on the feasibility of keeping the fire department at its present North Street location.
Nelson, of Vermont Integrated Architecture in Middlebury, presented a conceptual design that would rehabilitate and restore the historic 1897 building, and add a large garage bay building and a connector between the two buildings. That would bring the total square footage of the facility from 1,225 for the current building to 7,337. Including two existing buildings owned by the department, that would result in just under 10,000 square feet of operating space.
The expansion would be possible only with the town’s purchase of a residential property at 2 Garfield St. The town has signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with the property owners and put a $2,500 deposit on an estimated $250,000 sale. On the site of the current residence, at the corner of North and Garfield, the bay building would be constructed to house the department’s trucks.
Fire department officials have voted for the design unanimously.
Though a study of municipal buildings conducted in 2006 indicated that the fire department needed about 13,000 square feet of space, First Assistant Chief Brett LaRose told the couple dozen members of the public at Thursday’s meeting that firefighters had taken pains not to ask for more than what they absolutely needed.
“We would ask, ‘Do we really need this to do our jobs?’” LaRose explained.
The design presented at Thursday’s meeting was intended to gauge the feasibility of using the centrally located North Street site, which many feel is an important component of Bristol’s historic downtown and of the fire department’s heritage.
Several Bristol residents in attendance spoke of the importance of the central location for their children, who become excited when passing the firehouse. Selectwoman Sharon Compagna, who along with Selectman Alan Huizenga represents the selectboard on the planning committee tasked with planning the new fire facility, noted that the location plays an important role for the local schools.
On a more practical note, as Selectman John “Peeker” Heffernan noted, the location is ideal to ensure quick response. The size of a fire, Heffernan said, doubles every two minutes.
Compagna and Selectwoman Carol Wells also noted that a big reason to keep the fire department on North Street was cost. The cost of constructing a new facility elsewhere would be substantial.
In answer to some of the members of the public’s concern about the garage building being situated at the corner of North and Garfield — as opposed to moving the historic structure to the corner and making the garage less conspicuous, for example — the selectboard said the design presented Thursday was not necessarily set in stone.
“All we wanted to know was, is this possible?” Huizenga said. “I don’t think we’re saying this is final.”
Nelson said that a driving concept in the proposed design was balance: balance between preserving the historical site and modernizing it to be consistent with code, to expand square footage while working within the constraints of the site, and to make substantial improvements while keeping the cost practical and realistic.
Bristol taxpayers will soon have to pay for a fire facility upgrade anyway. Bryant noted that the foundations of the current facilities needed to be replaced and that the septic system was faulty. LaRose explained that there are no shower facilities; firefighters currently clean up at home, which in many cases means that their children and spouses are exposed to carbon monoxide.
With the purchase-and-sale agreement signed, the project goes to Bristol voters for approval in a dual bond vote. The first, on Town Meeting Day of this year, asks for an estimated $350,000 to $400,000 to cover the purchase of the Garfield Street property and fund the final design of the new fire station. A second bond vote for the construction of the facility is expected to coincide with the 2014 General Election. The total project cost is estimated at $2 million to $2.5 million based on cost-by-square-foot estimates as well as “soft costs,” like insurance.
However, the concerns raised by those in attendance tended to be aesthetic, not fiscal. One Garfield Street resident expressed unhappiness that the garage would be an eyesore that would negatively affect his property values in the future, while other neighbors worried that the character of North Street would be changed. Others raised concerns about the 2 Garfield St. building, which itself is a historic structure built in 1810.
Town officials said that their hope was to deconstruct the building and offer it “free to a good home.”
“We would love to keep it in Bristol,” Bryant said.
If there are no takers in Bristol, the town may put the building up for sale to be reconstructed elsewhere.
Selectman Joel Bouvier told concerned residents that getting the design right was important to all parties involved: “Long after I’m gone and my kids are gone, we want their kids to say, ‘They put a beautiful building there. And it fit the neighborhood. It still fits the neighborhood.’”
The public is encouraged to attend two open houses to be held at the North Street firehouse on Wednesday, Feb. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m., and on Saturday, Feb. 16, from 9 to 11 a.m., so that Bristol residents can tour the facility and observe the space for themselves. Members of the committee will be present to answer questions and show people around.
“If you haven’t been in the existing firehouse, just a tour will really bring to light why people want to stay in the building,” said Heffernan.
In addition, two public hearings for the first bond will be held, the first at the Monday, Feb. 25, selectboard meeting at 7 p.m. in Holley Hall, and the second at the March 4 Town Meeting Day preview at a time to be determined.

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