Fire station renovation too costly for Gainesville

The high cost of renovating the former Fire Station 1 has the city of Gainesville looking for another solution for the Main Street property.

The city replaced fire station 1, at 427 S. Main St., with a new station in 2017. And the city had intended to repurpose the old fire station 1 building into a community arts center in partnership with UF.

However, an architectural and engineering assessment estimated it would take more than $4 million to renovate the space, built in the 1960s, and bring it up to modern building standards.

The city had initially partnered with UF’s SPARC352 program to run a community arts and learning center in the renovated building. But the price tag for the renovation was more than the city has to spend on the project.

City officials said the $4.4 million for the fire station was more than twice the annual budget for building repairs to all city-owned properties. Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry said it would take $100,000 to $200,000 just to tear down the building.

“I am never going to support renovating this building,” said Commissioner Reina Saco. “I like old buildings, and I like to save them when we can, and we can’t save this.”

The city staff offered the commission six options on the building that ranged from leaving the building vacant to selling the building and using the profits to make repairs to other city buildings.

Initially, Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut was in favor of the option to sell the property and use the money to repair other buildings.

“Our needs are just massive in terms of fixing and renovating our own facilities,” Chestnut said. “We really need the funds to shore up our own house.”

However, by the end of the discussion Chestnut supported looking into a public-private partnership to develop the property first and only selling it if a partner couldn’t be found.

Several commissioners said they wanted to explore a public-private partnership where the fire house would likely be razed and a new multipurpose building built on the lot.

As part of a partnership, the city would reserve lower floor areas for community and SPARC352 use, while a private partner could build commercial or residential spaces above it.

“I really don’t want to sell the facility unless absolutely necessary, if only because it is such a prime location for anything that we and our partners could put out for the communities,” Saco said.

Andrew Telles, UF’s director of collaborative initiatives, told the commission that the university was still committed to moving forward with the SPARC352 project and had secured a $750,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to provide programming in Gainesville’s Porters and Pleasant Street communities.

UF was still promised $1 million a year to the project for operations, Telles said.

“The intention was never that the city would have to continue to maintain, through staffing and funding, the operation and maintenance on that site,” he said.

The commission voted to continue to partner with SPARC352 and to include them in a search for a private partner to help develop the fire station site. The city staff is expected to report back to the commission on the partnership opportunities at its first meeting in August.

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